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The National Museum of African American History and Culture: An illustrated guide

From the oculus to the corona, see the symbolism behind some of the museum’s most striking features

It’s impossible to ignore the presence of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall.

The African-influenced structure brings a sharp contrast to the towering obelisk that is the Washington Monument as well as the Neoclassical design of the U.S. Capitol.

While the artifacts inside the museum can bring an impact on an individual, the design of the building, itself, is just as striking and just as important. Below, see what characteristics of the Smithsonian’s nineteenth museum should be acknowledged and even looked forward to.


The bronze-colored corona, or crown, is the first impression visitors get when they visit the NMAAHC. The shape of the three-tier structure, angled upwards and away, is meant to express jubilation and resiliency.

The shape is also based on carved wood columns like those created by the Nigerian Yoruba sculptor, Olowe of Ise. The works of Olowe of Ise are displayed on the museum’s fourth floor in the "Cultural Expressions" gallery.


The corona is covered in 3,600 panels of cast aluminum, suspended by a steel framework, which allows the first floor to be covered in transparent glass. This latticework that wraps the exterior of the building refers to New Orleans ironwork made by enslaved African American craftsmen in the nineteenth century.

The angle of the panels is the same 17.5-degree angle as the Washington Monument’s capstone.


This 175-foot, covered section of the NMAAHC features angled steel and concrete as well as a small pool. The water in the pool churns and calms, representing the "stillness and strength after a turbulent beginning," according to The Washington Post.

According to Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture and design critic, the porch is meant to embody "the hospitality offered at even the humblest Southern residence."


The staircase that spirals down toward the Oprah Winfrey Theater might be one of the most overlooked design characteristics of the NMAAHC. The curving steel structure contrasts the box-shaped structure of the museum. Without supportive beams, it provides a clear view of the history gallery floor.


If entering from Constitution Avenue, on the North side of the museum, visitors will be able to view the NMAAHC’s oculus. This structure features a glass circle that allows natural light into the lower level’s floor. From the circle, a waterfall cascades down into the "Contemplative Court," a space for quiet reflection. The NMAAHC Tumblr stated that this feature is meant to symbolize the path that enslaved African Americans took to freedom, the journey North.