Sustainability

Seasonal Garden Community Garden Reflection Pool Contemplative Garden Retention Pond

Seasonal Garden

The seasonal garden will be curated to harbor some of the Virginia traditional crops. Tobacco and cotton leaves are placed throughout the garden to represent the labor and the plant that resulted in the oppression and torture of so many enslaved Africans. Traditional African plants will also be planted alongside the Virginian plants to illustrate the dual identity that descendants of enslaved Africans have to feel.

Community Garden

The Community Garden is created to operate as a place of commune and space in which the plants can be harvested. Community gardens have a long history in Black communities of being the place in which Black people self-sustain their environment without the need of white people.

Reflection Pool

The museum was created with the intention of ensuring that tourists would not just take in the information they are learning, they have to be active people in the history that is being created. The reflection pool is a water space in which people can pause and see the history of Richmond in context with themselves and the rest of the world.

Contemplative Garden

The contemplative garden is strategically placed parallel to the wall of enslaved ancestors. Link the reflection pool, it is supposed to operate as a break from the violent history of Richmond slavery, but trees within the garden can represent a link between past in present times.

Retention Pond

When it storms the retention pond can ensure that the water that falls on the museum will not get added to flooding. The water will irrigate the gardens. The retention pond also can allude to the fact that even when Black people go through disasters they use them as ways to create a better tomorrow. The output from a storm does not destroy the space, it adds to it.

Image Courtesy of SmithGroup

The increased visibility of climate change and environmental destruction in politics and social justice has propelled the historic preservation community to make sustainability a major problem in museum making. While it started as changing air conditioning units in art rooms to save energy,1 environmental sensitivity has become a pillar in cultivating architectures, landscaping, and botany inclusion in the world’s largest museums. The conversation regarding ecosystem and museums has morphed into cultural sustainability.

In “Achieving Cultural Sustainability in Museum: A Step Toward Sustainable Development” (2019), Izabela Pop defines cultural sustainability as the “principle that the current generation can use and adapt cultural heritage only to the extent that future generations will not be affected in terms of their ability to understand and live their multiple value and meaning.”2 This means to truly preserve history; the environment has to be sustained for future people to take part in it. It also states that cultural heritage is inherently linked to the environment, and they survive because of each other.

This theory has been implemented in major cultural museums, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum was constructed with the premise of not only giving history back to the Black community, but it wanted to give reverence back to the land. It would not just take up space. They used traditional mechanisms of museum sustainability like, “rainwater capture, green rooftops, and daylighting, but they illustrate much Black community’s relationships to the natural environment. The rainwater collecting at the mall would irrigate plant life and flow into the reflection pool, which connotes “African American’s experience of and cultural resonance with the River Jordan, the Middle Passage, and the waters of baptism all in mind.”3This illustrates how resourceful Black people have had to be with what they have. Trees are planted outside the museum, illustrating that plants will outlive the creators of the museum and the people who are honored with it. It connects the future with the past.


These pillars of cultural sustainability have been the building blocks in planning the National Slavery Museum. Landscapers of the museum said they wanted green space to focus on ethnobotany: the “relationship between plants and the culture of people of traditional medicinal and religious and other uses.”4 Ethnobotany and exhibition landscaping “tells a botanical story of slavery and survival- how Africans Experience human trafficking and the ingenious ways they developed to survive inhuman circumstances.

The practice is idealized by the incorporation of a community farm (figure below). The community garden was made to be an active body in the museum. Plants that can be tended to and taken back to the community can be fostered on the farm. This alludes to African ancestry and traditions that used, plants to solve ills and feed people that were loved.

Courtesy of SmithGroup

Inspired by the rainwater system in DC, the National Slavery Museum also utilizes store water to irrigate other parts of the greenery, while being parallel to the reflection garden. But its creation has a deeper meaning associated with health. The water and the plants that benefit from it have been seen as the entity that connects Black people to their ancestors. Black people are reborn in water, traveling by water to get to this country, and the water that has been transmitted through a cycle is the same water that their ancestors used. Water and certain plants are sacred to Black communities because it sometimes was the only things that they had for survival. It can give a museum tourist an understanding of the dichotomy of what was lost from Africa and what was gained from Black people’s creation in America.

Courtesy of SmithGroup

1.Brian Hayton, “Sustainability and Public Museum Buildings – the UK Legislative Perspective,” Studies in Conservation 55, no. 3 (2010): 150-154, 152.

2. Izabela Pop et al., “Achieving Cultural Sustainability in Museums: A Step toward Sustainable Development,” Sustainability 11, no. 4 (2019): 970, 22.

3. Kinshasha Holman Conwill, “To Reap the Harvest Wonderful,” American Art 28, no. 3 (2014): 20-27, 24.

4. SmithGroup and mikyoung kim design, Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site Devil’s Half Acre Project Landscape Concept Design, 2019, accessed December 3, 2021, http://www2.richmondgov.com/cip/sites/default/files/Landscape%20Concept%20Development.pdf.