The Sad and Sorry Smithsonian

The New Criterion | Published on December 5, 2012

By Bruce Cole

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There it sits, rusting away on a base of weed-infested gravel, dwarfed by tall trees masking its silhouette and blocking any view from afar. A worse setting would be hard to imagine. Adding insult to injury, it’s filthy, strewn with trash, defaced with graffiti, and colonized by bird nests.

Alexander Calder’s Gwenfritz (named after its socialite patron Gwendolyn Cafritz) was designed for the Constitution Avenue entrance of the Washington’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). Moved years ago from its original location to an obscure corner of the museum’s grounds, the thirty-five-ton sculpture has morphed over time into a metaphor for the museum itself: disordered, tired, and decrepit.

The NMAH, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, is the most visited history museum in the United States. Over four million people pass through its doors annually. Most are bewildered. Hordes of school groups seeing the sites in the nation’s capitol, vacationers from all over the United States, and waves of foreign tourists are equally lost in its dark maze where little knowledge is gained, confusion abounds, and inspiration is in short supply.

The NMAH opened in 1964, on the eve of LBJ’s New Society with all its optimistic, if misplaced, faith in the beneficial role the federal government could play in shaping the nation’s culture. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts were chartered in the following year.

The first of the Mall’s post-war Brutalist behemoths, the NMAH is the progeny of a period that saw an enormous lapse of taste, both in the District’s federal buildings and in its acres of undistinguished commercial office structures, mainly concrete and mostly dull.

Located between the Mall and Constitution Avenue, the NMAH is the last gasp of the once noble office of McKim, Mead & White, the firm that initiated the Classical Revival on the Mall with its 1910 Beaux Arts Museum of Natural History. Walker Cain, the principal architect of the NMAH, claimed, without a hint of irony, that his building was “so disarmingly simple that . . . it sits in well with neo-classical buildings all around it” and that it was “classical in definition and the details modern.”

Untrue. The NMAH is an overpowering, intimidating, and unwelcoming marble eyesore, an undistinguished box of Tennessee marble occupying an entire city block, its blank enormousness barely relieved by a façade of gigantic bays and lintels; it fails utterly in its architect’s desire to harmonize it with its classically inspired, finely detailed New Deal neighbors. Unlike these carefully designed structures, its architectural DNA is seriously flawed.

Its problems begin at the front door. Like the Mall’s National Gallery, designed by the brilliant but unjustly forgotten John Russell Pope, NMAH visitors can enter either from the on-grade Mall entrance or from the below-grade Constitution Avenue entrance (a walled terrace bridges the differing heights). The National Gallery’s Mall ingress is defined by columns and a pediment, but, more importantly, entered by monumental stairs leading the visitor upward, creating a sense of the significance of the building he is about to enter–it’s obvious that this is the front and principal door. But at the NMAH the entrances are minuscule apertures in the vast building. There is no architectural differentiation between the Mall and Constitution Avenue doors; neither furnishes a sense of grandeur or importance, nor a fitting entrance to a museum built to tell America’s story.

There is even confusion about the name of the NMAH. Two titles appear above its doors: the National Museum of American History and the Kenneth E. Behring Center. The latter stems from a controversial $80 million gift from Behring in 2001. Critics charged that Behring’s money gave him control over the content of exhibitions and programing, and they opposed the renaming of the museum. Regardless, it’s not clear what the world “center” means. The visitor wonders if the museum is the Behring Center or is an actual Behring Center inside the museum? There isn’t.

A comparable renaming is found at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, a recent rebranding of the National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery. Unable to change their original federally chartered designations, but obliged to recognize a major donor lavishly, both institutions were forced to resort to this awkward and confusing dodge.

Whatever its name, it’s clear that the NMAH’s exterior is flawed, but its interior is even worse. At its opening, the Secretary of the Smithsonian called the museum “a great exhibition machine.” He, of course meant that as a compliment, but he unwittingly put his finger on a colossal design failure, which continues to plague the museum: a lack ofdefinition and order.

The architects of the NMAH deliberately planned the building with little idea how it would serve to order and display its vast and diverse collections. Their idea was to construct an enormous unarticulated interior of 200,00 square feet, a container, for exhibition spaces not defined by fixed walls and ceilings, a void allowing for “flexible” and easily changed displays which created a sense of impermanence that continues to bedevil the museum decades after it was opened. Without a sequential, logical pattern established by rooms and corridors, the visitor meanders aimlessly from one space to another.

Effective museums are built around ideas and planned around the objects they hold and how best to convey their meanings. Good museum design creates architectural spaces that help visitors make sense of what they see. Not so with the NMAH, which is an undifferentiated vessel of three H-shaped floors with a central axis leading to exhibition space on either side.

Because the architects wanted to emphasize the vast expanse of the nearly featureless façade, illumination was furnished only by narrow strips of windows (now bricked up to control temperature) at the ends of each bay. Bereft of even that limited natural light and with few views of the Mall or Constitution Avenue, the interior is gloomy, even with the recent remodeling of its atrium (more on that below).

The visitor entering from Constitution Avenue sees a long entrance hall, which, like many other areas of the building, is poorly illuminated and dispiriting. Dimly lit glass display cases called “Artifact Walls” line either side of the hall, each crammed with hundreds of random objects, big and small. One, for example, displays a steam ship model, a peace sign, a cash register, an Elvis record cover, a shopping cart, a Korean war medical kit, a pitcher dated 1804, and a sugar cane knife, but it’s unclear both why these particular objects have been selected and why they are grouped together. Here, and throughout the museum, ephemeral items of pop culture are venerated as objects of major historical importance.

The cases of the “Artifact Wall” look like the contents of an attic where things have been piled randomly over centuries. The arbitrariness of the entrance hall is a microcosm of the entire museum’s lack of an overall physical and intellectual cohesion.

A few examples from the first floor will illustrate this. Off the entrance hall are galleries that give the impression of casually arranged temporary displays, but with the NMAH one is never sure. The “Hall of Invention” is a large room sparsely furnished with a jukebox, a Howdy Doody puppet, and a pink Patsy Cline costume, objects that do not necessarily bring the word “invention” to mind. There are also some children’s games set up on tables, probably to represent a “hands on” experience, but what any of this has to do with innovation is never explained nor self-evident. The rock and roll music continually blasting from overhead is annoying and pointless like most of the other piped-in sounds heard throughout the museum.

The nearby “Science in American Life,” like many other exhibitions, is temporarily closed. A nearby sign proclaims optimistically, “We’re getting the cobwebs out.”

There are three more exhibitions on the first floor: “Stories on Money,” “Lighting a Revolution,” and “America on the Move.” These, like the “Artifact Walls,” tell no continuous story and lack interconnection; they are discrete entities with no obvious relation to each other, like the objects in the entrance hall cases. Each says something about American history, but is fragmented and disconnected, the parts never forming a connected whole.

“Stories on Money,” housed in a small room, is one of the better displays. It comprehensibly traces the historical and aesthetic evolution of US banknotes and coinage–the NMAH has a large and distinguished numismatic collection, only a fraction of which can ever be shown. Here, although the curators have skillfully culled the collection, it is not made clear how the numismatic history of the US relates to the museum’s other exhibitions or to the larger story of America.

In the adjoining “Lighting a Revolution,” one sees another of the major NMAH weaknesses: confusing exhibition design. The electrification of the United States is, of course, an important and fascinating subject. Many of the objects on display are of interest, especially those produced in the workshop of Thomas Edison whose story is told in detail (although curiously the rear of the gallery is devoted, without obvious explanation, to steam and water power).

Yet “Lighting a Revolution” is more about invention and technology than it is about history; the reason for this lies in the origins of the museum’s collection. When the NMAH opened, it was called the National Museum of History and Technology. Much of its collection came from the Mall’s dilapidated 1881 Victorian Arts and Industry Building that was built to house the US National Museum, an important but randomly accumulated Victorian collection of objects including a “working coal mine and a live beehive.” The scientific and historical objects of the National Museum became the property of the NMAH, which was planned not by an historian, but by an engineering curator who became the museum’s first director.

Although it was renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980, the shotgun marriage between technology and history is still evident. Items of mainly technical and scientific interest–light bulb filaments, telescopes, and a giant Foucault pendulum among many others–coexist uneasily with military uniforms, manuscripts, and other historical objects. And, as late as 1995, the museum accepted a gift to establish a Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, further muddling its already schizophrenic mission.

The quality of exhibition design in “Lighting a Revolution,” like the majority of the displays throughout the NMAH, is depressingly bad. Instead of telling stories simply, using only the necessary objects, the dated and amateurish design overwhelms the visitors with an onslaught of items confusingly subdivided by numerous partitions. There are literally thousands of things in this gallery ranging from a light bulb to a huge generating station, far too many to be absorbed by the average one-time visitor with limited time and patience.

A series of badly designed, explanatory boards with corny graphics and hard to follow texts attempts, unsuccessfully, to explain what the visitor is looking at. There’s a sense of impermanence here that resembles a high school science fair, as though this is a temporary exhibition that could be dismantled at any time. This, as has been noted, is also true of many of the other galleries, partly because they exist in the undefined, wall-less space of the museum and partly because they seem so casually assembled.

There is no direct connection from “Lighting a Revolution” to one of the NMAH’s largest exhibitions. “America on the Move” is a voluminous collection of the many and varied forms of transportation from the horse-drawn cart, through the early years of the automobile, to the electric car (which gets three labels extoling its ecological virtues, although the Chevy Volt is not yet on display). Here one also finds buses, trollies, and railroad locomotives, including a gigantic 1930′s steam engine. Many of the objects are rare, fascinating, and important, but the subdivision of the space and the two levels of the exhibition create an episodic experience at the expense of a coherent story about the history of transportation.

There are two better exhibits on the second floor: the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a dramatic if simplistic showcasing of the battered flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to the National Anthem during the War of 1812; and an effective minimalist presentation of the lunch counter from the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina–the site of the famous 1960 sit-in, an important event in the struggle for civil rights. The presentation of these icons is the high point of this floor, which otherwise contains a series of the same sort of lackluster displays seen elsewhere in the NMAH.

If the visitor hopes for something better on the third floor, he will be disappointed. The “Price of Freedom,” part of Behring’s gift, is laudable for its attempt to tell the story of America’s armed forces and the wars they fought (especially in such a politically correct museum), but it is unfortunately marred by the same sort of baffling design which is the trademark of the NMAH.

The first part of the “Price of Freedom,” devoted to the American Revolution, is the museum’s cheesiest display, designed to entertain not enlighten. A plastic reproduction of a Liberty Tree takes center stage while General George Washington’s uniform, one of the great treasures of American history, is relegated to a corner. Costumed mannequins (a regrettable feature of modern exhibition design) dressed as soldiers are placed before a grainy film depicting Revolutionary War re-enactors marching to and fro as cannon blasts fill the air. This dumbed-down, cringe-inducing faux history is inexcusable anywhere, but especially in a museum with such major holdings from the period. The adjoining exhibit, “The American Presidency” is filled with major items, such as Jefferson’s desk and Lincoln’s top hat, and some not so major items, such as Warren Harding’s silk pajamas, but it suffers from the same type of overloaded, sloppy, fragmented display that so characterizes nearly every part of the museum.

Nearby, obscured in a dark, seldom visited gallery is one of the museum’s most compelling objects: the Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia, sunk during the Battle of Valcour Island in Lake Champlain and recovered in the 1940s with its contents intact, including bones, shoes, tools, and the cannon ball that sent it to the bottom in 1776.

Other aspects of the museum could be described, but at this point one needs to step back and ask: Why is the NMAH, supposedly the most important history museum in the country and certainly the most visited, in such a sorry state? The museum’s ill-conceived architecture is certainly responsible for part of the problem, but nearly a half century has passed since its opening and the design flaws still have not been fixed. And, why haven’t the tired grab-bag displays been replaced by more rational, comprehensible, and informative visitor-friendly designs?

The answer lies partially in the ossified nature of the Smithsonian’s bureaucracy which makes innovation and change difficult, especially in agencies where professional staff have federal life tenure, and partially in the fact that the NMAH has had a series of directors and acting directors over the last decade making continuity and long-range planning difficult.

But the major impediment to the museum’s improvement lies in the model of American history eagerly embraced by academics and museum curators around the time NMAH was planned.

This interpretation sees the American past not as a coherent, continuous account but rather as a mosaic of “contested” stories, a hodgepodge of competing interpretations each of equal importance. It precludes any sense of American identity and agreement on what events, people, places, or objects are more significant than others. And it prohibits a unified, chronological presentation of the history of the United States in the only national museum dedicated to explaining this country’s past.

Numerous academic historians and museum curators disdain the idea of the grand sweep of history with its high and low points, heroes and villains, the now outmoded narrative history that so interests most of those who visit the NMAH. Instead, professionals burrow into increasingly narrow, disjointed, and frequently inconsequential fragments of the American saga, often concentrating on race, class, and gender, the holy trinity of much contemporary scholarship which focuses on the oppression of various groups in order to promote “social justice” and advance political agendas. The baleful results of this are seen everywhere in NMAH, from the choice of objects, often of marginal historic importance, to the explanatory texts which accompany them.

In 2001, aware of the unsatisfactory state of the NMAH, the Regents of the Smithsonian appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission of historians, curators, and public figures to address the museum’s shortcomings. The committee’s lengthy report contained many sensible suggestions for improving of the museum’s space–including opening its central core–and its displays, although ideas for new content naturally reflected the fractured and divided nature of the American history establishment.

In 2002 the Commission submitted its recommendations. A new director, Brent Glass, was hired the same year. Four years later, the NMAH closed for two years while the central core of the building was given an $85 million renovation ($46 million came from Congress and the rest from donors).

The major modification was the construction of a naturally lit central atrium which brightens the heart of the building but does nothing to improve the orientation of the visitor who is now confronted by a shiny, story-high “digital abstract flag” made of polycarbonate. There is little else in this vast new space, aside from more dreary “Artifact Walls.” Thus, the opportunity offered to reorient the NMAH was detoured in favor of a glitzy, but meaningless, display.

A large Guatemalan “sawdust carpet,” which the label says is “ephemeral art, meant to be enjoyed for the moment,” currently covers the area in front of the “digital flag.” As no further explanation is offered, one is pressed to ponder why this contemporary folk art object from Central America occupies space in one of the most prominent areas of a museum dedicated to the history of the United States. This is mission bewilderment at its worst.

Over a decade has passed since the Blue Ribbon Commission made its recommendations and, aside from the renovation of the building’s core, little has changed. The museum, which has requested $22 million from Congress for 2013, claims that a number of new exhibitions are imminent–including a $20 million history of business display, which one hopes will not be just another isolated subdivision, but the problems of the NMAH are so profound and so systematic that a piecemeal approach won’t work.

To fulfill its mission as the nation’s history museum, the NMAH must clearly tell the whole American story, including its peaks and valleys, in a way that instructs. More importantly, it must not be afraid to describe an American identity and inspire its visitors with the greatness of this country.

To do this will require the leadership of the Smithsonian and the NMAH to admit that the museum has failed our citizens and that it needs a top to bottom overhaul. This will require vision and courage. In 2010, Brent Glass resigned. After a long search, a new director was appointed. John Gray, who started last July, made the Autry Museum in Los Angeles a success. Maybe he can do the same for the NMAH. In any case, he’s got important work cut out for him.

Bruce Cole is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.