Multicultural Museums: Helping Make Sense of Our National Identity

By Skipping Stones Staff

Museums can provide an essential, interactive, and engaging way to learn about cultural history—both for our own culture, and the culture of other people. Without knowing our history or roots, we may not fully feel like we belong—especially if we have differences from other people in a society (ethnicity, heritage, etc.). Many museums in the United States help teach about the multicultural history of the country. Some of these museums are located in the nation’s capital—Washington, D.C. They include the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others. If you get the opportunity, take time to explore them!

1. National Museum of African American History and Culture

One of the newest additions to the Smithsonian family of museums is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It shows the history of African Americans, from the first slaves brought over to the U.S., to the reconstruction era after the Civil War, and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. The museum helps visitors understand the impact of these experiences through stories, interactive exhibits, and the overall atmosphere. Many visitors say the experience is very powerful. and that it helped them better understand the history of the United States, because the history of the country has been significantly impacted by the history of African Americans.

The museum also contains exhibits and cultural items showcasing the lives of famous African Americans, from basketball player Kobe Bryant to singer Chuck Berry. It shows how these cultural icons have contributed to American culture and inspired countless people of all races, and it teaches about the racial barriers they faced in climbing to their success.

The museum also shows how African American culture is not just a unified block. There are different African American subcultures in various regions of the country. We see how geography affects the traditions, identity, and community of a group of people. Thus, African American culture in Chicago will be very different than in Birmingham, Alabama, for example.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture not only helps African Americans better understand their own history, but it also helps people of all races understand the contributions of African Americans in shaping the country’s culture and history.

Museum Website: https://nmaahc.si.edu/

Digital Resources from the Museum: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/nmaahc-digital-resource-guide

2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 

Another museum that tells the powerful story of a people is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It offers visitors a glimpse into an event that killed six million Jews—approximately two-thirds of Jewish people in Europe, during the 1930s and ‘40s. The museum depicts some of the events leading up the Holocaust, the horrors of the genocide that occurred, and how the events of that time shaped global history and culture. The exhibits help us understand how and why the Holocaust occurred and how to ensure something like that does not happen again. To that end, there are also other exhibits that detail types of genocide occurring in the present day, in places in the world.

One floor of the museum is dedicated to understanding how the Nazi Party gained power in the 1930s. This is particularly poignant because it shows how blind hatred for a group of people can lead society to allow extremist governments into power. Obviously, it is possible for this to happen again, unless people avoid getting complacent when they see hatred swelling in a society.

Another floor is dedicated to showing the Nazi’s policies towards Jewish people, including their ostracization, relocation to concentration camps, and mass murders. The final floor covers the liberation of Jewish people from concentration camps and the events after the Holocaust. The museum depicts these eventsthrough photos, Holocaust artifacts, historical footage and commentary.

The museum also hosts conversations with Holocaust survivors to provide first-hand takes on the experience, and has special exhibits dedicated to other genocides around the world, including those occurring in Burma, Sudan, and other places. Furthermore, it has online exhibits that generate further discussion about events and people related to the Holocaust, including Anne Frank, the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, and global responses to the event.

Visitors to this museum come away with a much better appreciation for the specific details of what occurred during the Holocaust and why it is so important to be aware of what is going on in the world today, so we can avoid another atrocity like this from happening again.

General Museum Website: https://www.ushmm.org/

The online exhibits can be viewed at: https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions

3. National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian

Located in Washington, D.C. with a branch in New York City, the National Museum of the American Indian is also a part of the Smithsonian Institute. This museum presents a lot of information that is left out of school textbooks about the history of Native Americans, Native American treaties, how Native Americans viewed the relationship between people and nature, and more. It’s the first national museum dedicated to Native Americans and has a series of rotating exhibits that ensure during each trip you take there, you learn something new. 

As the first national museum in the country dedicated to Native Americans, it not only contains objects, photos, media, and videos about Native Americans who lived on the land that is now the United States, but it also offers exhibits about Native people from what is now northern Canada all the way to the southern tip of South America. The exhibits don’t just show people the ways of Native American life, but they also give a taste of the Native American spirit. People who have Native American heritage can learn about their ancestors and get in touch with that aspect of their culture; People who don’t have that heritage can learn about the unique traditions, perspectives, and ways of life of people who lived in this part of the world long before European settlers arrived.

Museum Website: https://americanindian.si.edu/

Online Resources: https://americanindian.si.edu/online-resources/exhibition-websites

4. Latino Museums

Additionally, a new Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Latino, will be constructed in Washington, D.C. Although an opening date is not yet available, the museum will be dedicated to showcasing Latino history, art, culture, and scientific achievement. It aims to show how these contributions have influenced American culture overall.

While it won’t be ready for a while, there are many other museums around the country that you can visit and learn about Latino heritage. One of these is the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas. This museum strives to preserve Latino and Mexican art and cultural artifacts, and it also aims to engage with the community in discussions about Latino heritage. In addition to showing the art of various Mexican and Latino artists, it conducts outreach events, cultural programs, and hosts speakers. Some of the rotating exhibits contain work by up-and-coming artists and teenagers. Others focus on showing the variety of traditions and lifestyles within the Latino community. Visitors get a much richer appreciation of the diversity of Latino culture.

Museum Website: https://mexic-artemuseum.org/

Mexic-Arte Online Exhibitions: https://mexic-artemuseum.org/online-exhibitions/

National Museum of the American Latino Museum: https://latino.si.edu/about/national-museum-american-latino


Museums can be powerful learning experiences. We often may walk out of the doors feeling solemn, as though we have learned something important, because we see in vivid images and stories how various ethnic groups have been treated or persecuted. Many ethnic groups have faced violence simply because of who they are. Visiting museums is an enriching experience, providing a detailed knowledge about the history of different cultures in a way we do not get at school.