WASHINGTON – It’s with good reason that Lonnie Bunch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s founding director, has called this weekend a “mini-inauguration.” It’s jam-packed with things to do and places to be, not the least of which is inside the new museum.
If you’re determined to be on the National Mall at the heart of it all as the museum prepares to open its doors Saturday, we have everything you need to know, including who you’ll see at the Freedom Sounds Festival, what to bring (and leave at home), how to get there and, if you’re fortunate enough to have a timed pass to the museum, how admission will work for this historic weekend.
Q: Where are the events taking place?
A: The museum is located at 1400 Constitution Ave., between 14th and 15th streets NW. The Smithsonian will host a three-day, two-night Freedom Sounds Festival nearby to celebrate the opening. The festival will begin Friday and continue through Sunday on the Washington Monument grounds between 15th and 17th streets NW.
Q: Can I visit the museum?
A: The museum, which will open at approximately 1 p.m. Saturday and stay open until 8 p.m., and reopen Sunday from 7 a.m. to midnight, has given away all of its timed passes for the opening weekend.
The bad news: If you don’t already have a timed pass for either of the opening days, it’s practically guaranteed you won’t get in. The museum will not make passes available to walk-up guests on those days. The good news: The free Freedom Sounds Festival was created in part to accommodate those who didn’t get a pass but still want to be part of the celebration.
Tickets remain only for November and December, although weekend tickets are gone. The museum, however, will be making limited day-of passes available after opening weekend. Reserve passes at nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes.
Q: I scored passes for this weekend! What do I need to know?
A: The big news: You may still have to wait in line. Because of high-profile guests Saturday, including President Barack Obama, and more rigorous security checks during the opening weekend, your timed pass is only an estimate of when you’ll get in. If your pass is for 2 p.m., and you don’t make it to the doors until after your appointed time, you’ll still be admitted, says a museum spokeswoman. But don’t show up too early: If you attempt to enter the museum at 10 a.m. with a pass for 4 p.m., you’ll be turned away.
Take as little as possible inside to expedite the security process and maximize your time there. Think: a wallet or purse that’s been cleaned out and stripped to the bare essentials, and your phone to capture photos of your day. The museum has a limited number of lockers to check or store bags, and they may not be available on opening weekend.
The museum is advising pass-holders that it will probably be difficult to see the whole museum in one visit, particularly given the expected crowds.
Q: How can I watch the dedication ceremony Saturday?
A: If you’re staying home, C-SPAN will offer live coverage of the morning events on the Mall, including speeches by Obama and museum director Bunch.
For those who prefer to watch with company, the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum (1925 Vermont Ave. NW), Ben’s Next Door (1211 U St. NW) and the Florida Avenue Grill (1100 Florida Ave. NW) will broadcast the ceremony from 10 a.m. to noon.
If you want to see it in person, five jumbo screens will show the proceedings on the festival grounds Saturday morning, with entrances on 17th Street at Constitution Avenue NW and Independence Avenue SW, and near the Sylvan Theater, at Independence Avenue SW near 15th Street. Music will begin at 9 a.m., with speeches kicking things off at about 10.
Q: I didn’t get a timed pass. What do I need to know to attend the festival?
A: Tickets are not required. Organized in part by a curator of the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival, the free event will highlight several aspects of African-American culture and history, with dance and spoken-word performances, storytelling and live muraling Friday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Among the highlights: performances by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jean Carne, Sweet Honey in the Rock, 9th Wonder and a bass workshop by Stanley Clarke.
Evening concerts will be held Saturday and Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. and will feature nationally known acts: Public Enemy, rockers Living Colour and the Roots will perform Saturday, and Experience Unlimited will join Meshell Ndegeocello and Angelique Kidjo on Sunday, the festival’s closing night.
Entrances for the event will be the same as for the dedication viewing: 17th Street at Constitution Avenue NW and Independence Avenue SW, and near the Sylvan Theater, on Independence Avenue SW near 15th Street.
Q: What time should I arrive?
A: Three checkpoints for the festival and dedication open Friday at 10 a.m., Saturday at 6 a.m. and Sunday at 8 a.m. A fourth checkpoint at 15th Street and Jefferson Drive will open Saturday only after the dedication concludes, sometime after 1 p.m. It will be open all day Sunday beginning at 8 a.m.
Q: Will the concerts be worth it? How long will Public Enemy and the Roots actually play?
A: Acts during the evening festivities will each play sets approximately 45 minutes long, so you’ll have plenty of time to hear your favorite songs.
Q: How will the size of the festival compare with inauguration and the Concert for Valor?
A: The 2009 presidential inauguration festivities and 2014’s Concert for Valor attracted several hundred thousand attendees and covered far larger swaths of the Mall. With the perimeter limited to the monument grounds, the festival this weekend will be considerably more intimate.
Q: What is the best way to get there?
A: Metro (which this month released four SmarTrip cards with designs commemorating the opening) will be running during the opening weekend, with the nearest station at Federal Triangle (Blue, Silver and Orange lines), followed by the Smithsonian stop (along the same three). The Orange Line will experience major disruptions in Northern Virginia this weekend because of repair work. Avoid that line if possible, or make other arrangements.
If you’re planning on taking a car-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft, be aware that there will be extensive road closings near the museum and that you may experience traffic jams or have to walk farther than you might have expected to reach the festival or museum grounds.
Q: Should I really not drive?
A: The road closings, particularly on 14th Street NW and Constitution Avenue, will shutter major arteries into the city. If you must drive, Sunday will be a better bet because the president will not be near the site; consider parking in one of the many garages near Verizon Center or in neighborhoods farther from the museum, such as Capitol Hill or McPherson Square, and taking Metro the remainder of the way to the Mall.
Q: OK, I’ll just bike. Will there be parking for my bike?
A: Bicycles won’t be allowed in the security perimeter around the museum or festival, and organizers won’t be bringing in additional racks for those who wish to lock their bikes outside the gates. Plan on securing yours far from the events at the museum. Among the nearby bike racks are those at the Air and Space, American Indian, Hirshhorn and Natural History museums; the Smithsonian Castle; and the garden shared by the African Art museum and the Sackler Gallery. (Take note: American History will not open until after the dedication on Saturday.) Capital Bikeshare is available, but it offers notoriously few stations on the Mall, and demand for the service will be high.
Q: What shouldn’t I bring to the festival?
A: Hard coolers are banned, as are your pets. But there are a lot of surprises on the list of prohibited items: You also won’t be able to bring in glass containers or soda cans, aerosol containers (yes, even your spray-on sunscreen), any kind of tent, folding chairs or umbrellas. Instead, plan on bringing a comfy, large blanket to sit on and ponchos in case of rain.
The security checkpoints for the festival and dedication will mirror those for major events on the Mall, such as Independence Day. Visitors are being urged to leave big bags and non-necessities at home; if you need to carry provisions, consolidate so that only one member of your group is carrying a backpack or bag to expedite your passage through security.
Q: Can I bring food onto the festival grounds?
A: Yes. But think along the lines of sandwiches, chips and granola bars to avoid having items confiscated at security.
Three concessionaires will be serving food. KBQ Real Barbeque will offer barbecue and soul food; RockSalt, a local food truck, will serve Gulf Coast-style po’boy sandwiches; and the catering company Collabo will offer Kenyan curry and Caribbean fare. Organizers say vegetarian options will be available, but vegans and those with food allergies should consider packing a lunch. Beer will also be sold. Take note, too, that food trucks typically parked along 14th Street will not be allowed onto the closed streets.
A final tip: Bring a refillable water bottle. The grounds will have several filtered-water stations.
Q: What if it rains?
A: Mild rain won’t cause organizers to cancel the Freedom Sounds Festival. It could close for the remainder of any day if a heavy rainstorm with severe wind and lightning strikes. A storm, however, will not affect the museum or its hours.
Organizers advise those planning to attend to sign up for its text alert system, which will be dispatching updates Saturday about weather, traffic and any last-minute changes. To sign up (and later, opt out), text MUSEUM to 888777.