WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Smithsonian Institution museum system has always been a thing of beauty in D.C., for residents and tourists alike. Vast collections of natural and cultural history are all at the public’s fingertips, free of charge, in the heart of the city. The Smithsonian is so extensive that it seems there is always some random gallery or a back-corner exhibit to be explored.
They’re housed in a series of different buildings, the architecture of which has never followed any sort of stylistic rhyme or reason. The structures’ motifs range from Norman to neo-classical to ultra-contemporary to something in between. The less classically-oriented edifices were gleaming and modern after construction, but now, 20-30 years later, find themselves sorely in need of updating. That was particularly true of the Museum of American History, one of the largest and most visited attractions within the system.
When the building closed for renovations in September of 2006, its interior reflected the chic of its 1960s construction: the lighting was dim, the floors were dark, and the layout uninspired. But after the Federal government and private donors poured $85 million dollars into a two-year renovation, the America History museum proudly reopened its doors this past weekend. Amidst the fanfare of musical performances and living history exhibitionists, the general public was finally allowed to admire the sleek, modern interior and check out the revamped exhibits.
Perhaps the most obvious change in the entire building is to the lobby, previously dominated by a large, swinging pendulum and the mangled flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem. The refinished lobby is bright and clean, with an abundance of natural light, glass banisters, and brushed steel accents. The walls are lent a futuristic, antiseptic feel by the large, opaque white panels that cover them. A backlit, silvery flag sculpture waves in a recessed portion of the main wall, indicating the entrance to the “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit. The pendulum has been removed and Old Glory is given an impressive new home immediately behind the wall on which it used to hang.
The stars and stripes’ new housing is the centerpiece of museum’s renovation. Entering at the back of the main lobby, visitors are brought through a long walk-way, past a series of displays and artifacts that lend context to the importance of this particular flag. The national anthem plays softly in the background amidst the sounds of cannon fire and screeching rockets. The walkway gradually darkens and leads to the flag’s massive display. The standard is illuminated and laid on a gentle incline, dominating the area and granting viewers perspective on its 34 feet of length. Despite its ragged bunting, cut up by 19th Century souvenir hunters, the flag maintains an aura of dignity befitting the object that inspired our National Anthem.
Elsewhere, the museum retains the eclectic blend of artifacts that made the pre-renovated version so enjoyable. The collection varies from the amusingly anecdotal—the original Kermit the Frog muppet—to the iconic—Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. Exhibit themes range from warfare, to transportation, to energy and invention. Pre-renovation, these galleries were extensive but jumbled, befitting the museum’s nickname: “America’s attic.” Now visitors find themselves on a winding, yet logical, pathway through each exhibit. They are still chock full of Americana, but much easier for the less history-oriented to interpret. Open areas around particularly popular or notable displays allow easy viewing, even when traffic is heavy.
While the revamped exhibits and updated interiors are a welcome change to the formerly drab halls of the Museum of American History, I can’t help but wonder if this renovation is merely the repetition of an expensive mistake made during the building’s construction 40 years ago. The appeal of the new aesthetic rests firmly in its distinct modernity. While the light panels and abstract artwork may lend themselves to the tastes of the early 21st century man, will this brand of beauty be in vogue much beyond a decade? Will this extreme renovation require an equal in 40 years?
It seems to me that the answer is yes. While this current incarnation of the Museum of American History is conservatively modern, the previous incarnation, which many found distasteful, would have been defined as the same in its day. Renovation to such a transient style suggests the Smithsonian isn’t getting the most bang for its 85 million bucks. But what could have been done differently? The museum’s exterior is modernist, and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a “timeless” interior. If the objective was to save money on facility renovation, then the error came when the museum was first designed. Nothing short of redoing the entire façade can change that, and, considering that the museum is part of the D.C skyline, it’s doubtful that anything so drastic will ever happen. To the renovators’ credit, they used more durable and sustainable materials this time around. Even if trends continue to move forward and the interior grows out of date, it will still be in good repair. So, enjoy this once in a 40-year experience and see the Museum of American History reborn. You’ll likely have to wait till 2058 for it to happen again.
To see photos of the revision and reopening ceremony, visit the National Museum of American History on Flickr.
Kirk Anderson lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area.
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