From the European South

a transdisciplinary journal of postcolonial humanities

Edusemiotic pathways in an iconic museum text: the African American experience

Lucia Abbamonte and Raffaella Antinucci


Since its opening in 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has surpassed 6 million visits, becoming a monument to the African American identity. The representational emphasis of the NMAAHC lies on how resilient the African American people who endured slavery were, though museumgoers cannot avoid witnessing racial violence and the unvarnished truth of slavery. One objective of the NMAAHC is to unmask previously normalised histories of the exploitation of slavery and racial subjugation, as museumgoers progress along its awareness-raising pathways. Unlike many Western museums, the NMAAHC does not display the spoils of slavery and exploitation as valuable artifacts, but reveals and exposes their quality as products of forced labor. The present study aims to investigate aspects of this rich and challenging heritage, in particular the multi-layered communicative dimension of the NMAAHC, with its synergy between its artefacts and the accompanying verbal explanations and comments, which manage to resemiotize (pedagogically) apparently innocuous objects as the products of forced labour and endeavour to promote societal change. The architectonic structure of the museum visually conveys the novelty of its approach and realizes the identity of museums as ‘spatial texts’ and loci of dialogic interactivity with explicit educational-through-semiotic purposes. Visitors are helped to search for the (hi)stories of their families, record their stories/emotional reactions and realize how essential their individual/family stories are to understanding/demystifying the narrative of African American history and heritage. A broad (edu)semiotic approach (Danesi 2010; Olteanu and Campbell 2018; Semetsky and Campbell 2018) with insights from museum studies (Ravelli 2006; Ravelli and Heberle 2016) and multimodal discourse analysis (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001, 2006), is adopted for this investigation. The considerations/implications of this exploration are discussed in light of the ongoing efforts to find new ways to promote racial literacies and societal change in the US, also by unmasking the existing unequal power relations, which the pandemic has amplified, as denounced by the Black Lives Matter movement.


NMAAHC, histories of slavery, edusemiotics, museum studies, multimodal discourse analysis, racial literacies, Black Lives Matter, history and story-telling



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