This New Museum Celebrates Black Music and We Can’t Wait to Visit

Bebe Howorth
·3-min read
Photo credit: Matt Wronski
Photo credit: Matt Wronski

A trombone played by a member of America’s first racially integrated jazz orchestra. The outfit worn by TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes during her final performance. A striking dress created for R&B singer India Arie for her performance at the 2013 Nobel Prize ceremony. These are just a few of the treasures that you can encounter at Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), an institution that celebrates the history and global influence of Black artists and entertainers and is the first such museum in the United States.

And though the history-filled objects steal the show, the museum’s interiors play a vital supporting role. Designed by Nashville native Donna Gilliam of Donna Gilliam Interiors (Harold Thompson Architects handled the building, and the exhibits were overseen by Gallagher Associates), the museum’s expansive public and private spaces are meant to enhance the experiences of visitors and staff and to capture the spirit of Black music.

Photo credit: Laura Rockett
Photo credit: Laura Rockett

Gilliam, who started her firm in 2004, is known primarily for residential and commercial projects in the Nashville area. For NMAAM, her firm was tasked with designing 26,000 square feet of space, including the lobby, theater, administrative suite, and theater, among others. As the designer told ELLE Decor in an interview, “Working with the design of the museum and honoring my own Nashville history and musical influences feels full circle.”

During design development, Gilliam says she was inspired by many of her favorite musicians, including Patti LaBelle and Cardi B, whose images hang in two of the museum’s galleries (“I’ve always wanted to be a singer,” Gilliam jokes, “but that is one gift I was not blessed with”). In addition to the rhythm and flow of Black music, she also turned to the beauty of African landscapes.

These touchstones are especially evident in the museum’s flexible, main lobby, where a gleaming terrazzo floor and an undulating acoustic ceiling evoke water. The walls, meanwhile, are wrapped in warm wood cladding to evoke “the beautiful terrains of the African Sahara,” Gilliam said. When not in use, this foyer can transform into a 400-seat concert venue for musical performances and galas, thanks to timber stadium seating.

Photo credit: Gallagher and Associates
Photo credit: Gallagher and Associates

One of the design’s main challenges was figuring out a way to bring light into the low-ceilinged, largely subterranean building, including staff offices and conference rooms. To counteract the dimness, Gilliam and her team experimented with different ceiling treatments, leveraged lighting, and incorporated shiny materials like glass and the terrazzo.

All come together in a cohesive, welcoming whole. After passing through the Gilliam-designed spaces, museumgoers can discover memorabilia that spans some 50 different genres of music, from George Clinton’s funkadelic on-stage wear to a recreation of an early American banjo.

“Design is like music,” Gilliam reflected. “I want visitors to find comfort, culture, and a place to celebrate the influences of African American music in their own lives.”

Photo credit: Laura Rockett
Photo credit: Laura Rockett

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