National Museum of African American History and Culture: Design and Construction

September 1, 2016
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Construction site at night

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will open to the public Sept. 24 as a primary exhibition space for African American history and culture as well as a centerpiece venue for ceremonies and performances.

Building Design

The building design is the product of a collaboration of four design firms that formed Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR: The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and the SmithGroupJJR. The design of the building features two distinct design elements—the “Corona,” the signature exterior feature that consists of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels weighing a total of 230 tons, and the “Porch,” which serves as the location for the main museum entrance on Madison Drive.

Design architect David Adjaye has focused on the formal development of the building design and is the creative force behind the building’s Corona. As the outer layer of the building, the Corona draws on imagery from both African and American History, reaching toward the sky in an expression of faith, hope and resiliency. The three-tiered shape is inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid, a traditional wooden column that features a crown or corona at its top. The pattern of the exterior panels evokes the look of ornate 19th-century ironwork created by enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans and allows daylight to enter through dappled openings. At night, the Corona glows from the light within, presenting a stunning addition to the National Mall.

Adjaye designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and Rivington Place and the Idea Store in London. He is the winner of the 1993 Royal Institute of British Architects award. He has taught at the Royal College of Art, where he had previously studied, and at the Architectural Association School in London. Adjaye has held distinguished professorships at the universities of Pennsylvania, Yale and Princeton. He is currently the John C. Portman Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard. Adjaye was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to architecture in 2007, received the Design Miami/Year of the Artist title in 2011, the Wall Street Journal Innovator Award in 2013 and the W.E.B. Du Bois medal from Harvard University.

Phil Freelon is the lead architect and architect of record. Beginning in 2006, he led the programming and planning effort that set the stage for the design of the museum. For the past six years, he has led the four-firm design team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR to create an iconic building design that is aligned with the program and vision of the Smithsonian. Freelon’s team is responsible for the coordination of 32 consultants through documentation and construction to ensure that the design intent and the museum’s vision become a reality.

Freelon has earned recognition for his design of museums with cultural and social themes such as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. His experience includes African American-focused art and culture museums, including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte—all winners of American Institute of Architects (AIA) design awards. Freelon is a recipient of AIA’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and a Fellow of the AIA. He is a recipient of AIA North Carolina’s Gold Medal, the association’s highest individual honor. In 2014, Freelon and his firm joined global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will.

Davis Brody Bond provided additional design depth for this complex project, drawing on its experience with designing large museums and other cultural projects. David Brody Bond is responsible for designing the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater and the History Galleries, all below grade. The firm is involved in the planning, design and execution of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center in New York and also led the restoration and expansion of the New York Public Library. It has received more than 175 major design awards, including the Presidential Award for Design Excellence.

SmithGroupJJR developed and coordinated the design and construction of the entire exterior enclosure. Bringing 35 years of experience working with the Smithsonian on many of its largest and most complex building projects, SmithGroupJJR previously served as lead architect for the National Museum of the American Indian. Internationally, the firm designed the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center in France, honored for design excellence by AIA chapters in Washington, Virginia and Maryland. 


The landscape is another integral part of the threshold experience, establishing the site itself as a critical component of the design while providing perimeter security and sustainable storm-water management. From ground level to the rooftop, the series of landscaped spaces are intended to embody both a metaphorical and physical narrative, with the presence of water as a constant and dynamic companion throughout the journey.

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) led the landscape design, establishing the site itself as a critical component of the museum experience. The two entries into the site are marked by a gently curving plinth of highly polished stone and an entry fountain of moving and still water.

After crossing these symbolic thresholds, broad sweeping paths draw visitors into a landscape that is both continuous and sequential, layered with trees native to the South. Live oaks, magnolias and American beeches are part of diverse plantings chosen to reinforce the broad themes of the museum: resiliency, spirituality, hope and optimism.  

A reflecting pool at the south entry brings the museum into the view of the National Mall, with calm waters meant to invite all to approach.


Sustainability has been a primary consideration in the design and development process. The museum is designed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Sustainable elements include photovoltaic panels that produce electricity to heat water for the building. When completed, the museum will stand as a demonstration of best practices in environmental design.


The museum broke ground in February 2012. The 400,000-square-foot building is situated on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument. Total cost for construction and installation of exhibitions was $540 million, one-half funded by federal funds and the remainder by the Smithsonian. The construction manager is Clark/Smoot/Russell, a joint venture of Clark Construction, Smoot Construction and HJ Russell and Co.

The museum is one of the largest and most complex building projects underway in the country, in large part because of the challenges of constructing 60 percent of the structure below ground.

Above Ground

Fifth floor:      Staff offices, board room

Fourth floor:    Culture galleries: “Musical Crossroads,” “Cultural Expressions,” “Visual Arts Gallery,” “Taking the Stage”

Third floor:      Community galleries: “Power of Place,” “Making a Way Out of No Way,” “Sports Gallery,” “Military History Gallery”

Second floor:  Education space, resource center, Center for African American Media Arts

First floor:       Central hall, welcome center, orientation theater, store

Below Ground

Concourse 0:   Atrium, contemplative court, Oprah Winfrey Theater, Special Exhibitions Gallery, café

Concourse 1:   History Gallery—“1968 and Beyond”

Concourse 2:   History Gallery—“Era of Segregation”

Concourse 3:   History Gallery—“Slavery and Freedom”

Located at the corner of 15th Street N.W. and Constitution Avenue, the museum includes exhibition galleries, an education center, theater, auditorium, café, store and offices. Visitors will enter the museum through the grand Porch at south (National Mall) side of the building, while a secondary entrance is provided on the north (Constitution Avenue) side.

The Central Hall is the primary public space within the building and the point of orientation to the museum’s offerings. As visitors move through this generous space, they can stop at the Orientation Theater, Welcome Desk or the museum store.

As visitors move through the exhibitions, a series of openings frame views of the Washington Monument, the White House and other Smithsonian museums along the Mall. These openings or “lenses” offer respite and pause at selected moments along the exhibition experience. The framed perspectives serve as a reminder that the museum presents a view of America through the lens of African American history and culture.

The Contemplative Court provides a water- and light-filled memorial area that offers visitors a quiet space for reflection. A raised overhead oculus (circular window) allows light to enter the space.

One of the largest spaces in the museum, the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater will be a forum in the nation’s capital for performers, artists, educators, scholars, authors, musicians, filmmakers and opinion leaders. The theater’s programs will enable audiences to gain a broader understanding of how African American history and culture shape and enrich the country and the world.

Since breaking ground, significant construction milestones include:

  • November 2012—First concrete pour
  • November 2013—Cranes install the first iconic artifacts, a Jim Crow-era railroad car and Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) prison guard tower, into the museum
  • October 2014—Steel topping out; last steel member lifted for structural framing
  • January 2015—Above-grade steel-and-concrete superstructure is complete to the roof level; glass installation begins on fifth floor
  • April 2015—Glass enclosure complete; the first of 3,600 bronze-colored “Corona” panels installed
  • September 2015—Corona and building enclosure is complete, except doors
  • November 2015—Projection Mapping Event: Celebrated countdown to museum’s grand opening and commemorated anniversaries of 13th amendment, Voting Rights Act and Civil War’s end
  • Sept. 24, 2016—Grand opening

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