Smithsonian Project Has Roots in Durham

Smithsonian Project Has Roots in Durham

Bull City-based architect leads the design on the country's first national museum portraying the full scope of African-American life.


Durham’s own Phil Freelon has made an indelible mark on the nation’s landscape. Since founding The Freelon Group in 1990, the award-winning architect has been the designer of record for a number of structures in our own backyard, including the City of Durham’s Transportation Center and Solid Waste Operations Facility, Durham County’s Human Services Building and South Regional Library, the parking deck at RDU and the North Carolina Central University Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise facility. More than a decade ago, he began to build his reputation as a designer of African- American museums and cultural centers. Thriving in the fiercely competitive design arena, Phil won commissions to visualize the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena cultural district, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, and the Emancipation Park Project in Houston’s Third Ward, which is the historic site of a 10-acre plot purchased by four emancipated African-Americans for the purpose of celebrating Juneteenth – June 19, 1865 – the date the end of slavery was formally acknowledged in Texas.

National Museum of African American History and Culture; (NMAAHC) construction site - Site Tour on March 18, 2016
Photo by Michael Barnes

In September, one of the pinnacles of Phil’s career, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Situated at the base of the Washington Monument with a view of the White House, the new facility is America’s first national museum dedicated to the full breadth of the black experience. The 313,000-square-foot structure, constructed on the last buildable location on the National Mall, is comprised of 10 stories in all (five of them aboveground) and is sheathed in a bronze-colored corona, inspired by Yoruba art.

“The bronze-clad corona expresses faith, hope and resilience,” Phil says. “The light filters into the interior of the building. At night, the corona glows, creating stunning views from vantage points across the city.”

In 2003, Congress committed half of the $500 million needed to pay for the design and construction of the building and the installation of the exhibitions, all under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. To date, the museum has raised more than $280 million in private funds (GlaxoSmithKline, in Research Triangle Park, donated $2 million.) Staff salaries, estimated at $44 million, will be paid by the Smithsonian.

Phil is the museum’s architect of record, and he was the driving force that pulled the team of collaborators together – African- American architectural firm Davis Brody Bond (New York, Washington, D.C., and São Paolo) and Ghanaian lead architect David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates (London and New York), with engineering support from the SmithGroup (Detroit).

“The Smithsonian commission did not come out of nowhere,” Phil says. “Our team had a strong body of work, and we produced the best design. The [design] competition had two parts: a solicitation for the pre-design and the concept for the museum.” After consulting with groups including the Association of African American Museums and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and visiting museums focusing on the diaspora located around the world, the team “produced a six-volume, 1,200-page, thoroughly researched study that gave [the search committee] a taste of our knowledge.”

Of the dozens of firms that competed during the first phase, Freelon Adjaye Bond SmithGroup emerged among six finalists in the design phase. Ultimately, the group would become the winners.

“Competing for prestigious commissions is what we do,” Phil says, “We recognized this as an important project, one that we knew we could excel on, and we wanted it.”

Many synergies were at work. “It came at a point in my career when I was ready,” Phil says. “The timing was really fortuitous from a process standpoint. The mission and themes of the institution resonated. I wanted to be a part of that and to lend my skills and talents to bringing it about. It’s been a huge honor.”

Among the 37,000 artifacts visitors will see on display are: the hymnal that belonged to Harriet Tubman and the shawl given to her by Queen Victoria; Nat Turner’s Bible (which underwent an extensive authentication process involving historians and scientists); a 77-ton, 80-foot-long restored Southern Railway Jim Crow passenger car that’s nearly 100 years old; a prison guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary; one of James Brown’s custom skin-tight, red-hot jumpsuits; and materials from the presidential campaigns of Shirley Chisholm and Barack Obama (who was on hand for the museum’s groundbreaking in February 2012).

In addition to the museum and its seven exhibition halls, there’s a theater and a cafe. “The building itself will stand as a powerful testament to the centrality and relevance of the African-American culture and history,” Phil says.

Kirsten Mullen – folklorist, arts consultant and founding president of Artefactual – was a consultant to The Freelon Group on the museum.