Museum #5: The National Building Museum

Something that I came to realize about this blog in preparing to write this post is that a Museums 365 visit cannot be a solo experience. The only time I write about my visits to museums without at least one partner in contemplation is in sidelights: a single exhibit, a reflection on a long-past museum moment, or a museum that isn’t actually in DC.

The reason for this became clear over dim sum after our visit to the National Building Museum last weekend. I made the trip with three of my Juno tweetup buddies, and before the visit I’d sent a list of questions and pre-reading to contemplate. As I took notes on our dinnertime post-mortem, one of my companions turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you think?” Turns out that I’m much better at asking than at answering questions. In general, I come at museums with an overwhelmingly positive and open-minded attitude, but I have become more and more of a curious person and a believer in the value of question-based exploration as I spend more time as a museum professional. I need my museum-going buddies so that, when I write up a full museum here, it’s not just full of excitement and more questions. (I hope there are still plenty of those in here, too! Answers are also good, and I tend to be less effusive about those.)

National Building Museum Interior

The National Building Museum from the top floor. Picture by me.

I preface the following by saying that I adore the museum. The more I learn about it, the more time I spend in it, the more fascinated I become by it. But I had questions (as usual), and hopefully we found some answers.

Without further ado, the National Building Museum.

The e-mail I sent to my companions before we set out on our visit included three questions, which I’ll use to guide this post.

1.       How does the museum sit in its community–right by the DC court house complex, a few blocks from the heart of Chinatown and the Verizon Center, a few blocks north of the mall? How will this relationship change now that the museum charges to view the exhibits (but not to enter the building)?

One of my buddies described the museum as being “two blocks in the wrong direction”: situated between 4th and 5th Streets NW and F and G Streets NW, the museum is a little off the beaten path, it would seem, for the average Smithsonian-headed tourist. In general, we might expect it to be more of a community gathering place than a tourist attraction: the Firehook bakery inside the Great Hall could feed and water the surrounding working population or people headed to jury duty, the arch-building kit and discovery room a young family’s weekend stop, the Great Hall itself a shelter from the elements or a space for quiet contemplation amidst the grandeur. Again, since the museum does not charge to enter the building, it can still serve these functions and continue to be an impromptu space within the life of the surrounding Washingtonians.  Moreover, amidst the austere architecture of the surrounding federal and WMATA buildings, the “red barn” rises as a defiant relic of fine architectural functional form, providing, at least from the outside, a place of refuge from the regular concerns of federal Washington.

I hope—sincerely hope—that the initial shock of the news that NBM is charging for entrance to exhibitions has not become sensationalized to “The Building Museum charges eight dollars just to get in the front door!” The function it serves as a space within the neighborhood should be maintained. The building itself drips with history—but more on that later.

What charging for exhibitions does do, however, is increase the specialization of the content itself.  With a big-name exhibit like LEGO currently gracing (and rightly so) the upper floor, broad-based appeal can drive traffic into the museum and encourage payment for access. But what about exhibits based on the museum’s stated mission?  In the opening panel for “Cityscapes Revealed: Highlights from the Collection,” we are told that the exhibit displays the “wealth of artifacts that illuminate virtually all aspects of America’s building heritage.”  Will fenestrations and the American Brick Collection continue to prove enough of a draw? Will this splendid exhibit need to find more popular expressions to bring in crowds? Or are we Washingtonians spoiled enough by our Smithsonians and other free museums that we don’t realize that the rest of the world is willing to pay for museums? (I admit freely to massive bias on this question.)

LEGO exhibit

One of two pictures I took that wasn't in the Great Hall. LEGO exhibit, photo by me.

One last note on the free vs. paid question: with the exception of the blockbuster LEGO exhibit, photography is prohibited in the exhibit spaces, often forcefully and emphatically.  With the move to payment to view the exhibitions, these thought-provoking exhibits (World’s Fair! Wow!) are further placed out of reach of non-visitors.  What’s more, by keeping the paying customers from sharing their visual experiences of the space, the museum might be further discouraging potential visitors from being moved to come to the museum and pay admission for something they think might be good but have no way of knowing.  This is also not helped by the fact that the museum’s website has almost no pictures of the exhibits. If you’re going to put up a paywall, at least let us lift the curtain a little to give our friends, family, and followers a taste of the experiences we’re having in your space.

2.       What is a “National Building Museum”? What do we expect from it? What do we require of it? What should it be?

My museum-going companions listed their expectations: pictures of buildings, models of extant structures, a place that speaks very specifically about American architecture. We conjured up images of a space for display without interaction, or a home for specialists to explore and discuss their craft, trade, or interest.

As it turns out, the Building Museum is very much a living space, aided by the fact that, well, it’s full of space. (More on that in the next section.) Most of the time, rather than inaugural balls, the lots-of-space is used for activities, like building your own arch out of giant foam blocks (guys, if any of you has that picture, can you send it to me?), or for general milling about and looking up.  This does mean that the exhibit spaces are pushed off to the sides and are called out by hanging signs overhead, allowing the building itself to become its own exhibit.

Presidential Seal

Did you know the Building Museum is the only building other than the White House with a permanently affixed Presidential Seal? Photo by me.

What is contained within the exhibits runs the gamut from a truly exceptional exhibit on World’s Fairs (if  you haven’t seen it, go now! It closes on September 5), a thoroughly enjoyable and whimsical exhibit on LEGO architecture of famous buildings (with an area where you, too, can be a LEGO architect), and an exhibit on Washington’s built history that winds up being full of neat trivia for natives and newcomers alike.  The commonality among these exhibits is the built environment: what is immediately around us, how the built environment and our dreams for a future built environment shape and reflect our culture, how impressive structures become accessible when recreated in small-scale.

More than being confined to solid structures, the museum asks us to break the bounds of the walls that hold us and imagine how the future might look.  The uses we ascribe to buildings, the configurations of our cities—these things, we learn, are ephemeral, if only we learn better how to dream.  On one wall in “Cityscapes Revealed,” a retrospective on the museum’s collection, the museum showcases a pair of drawings of hypothetical cities.  These drawings, completed decades apart, reflect our priorities: the most recent one is home to seven stadiums.  The juxtaposition of the historical yet forward-thinking exhibition with “Designing Tomorrow,” the exhibit about World’s Fairs, invites us to dream through history, to explore how our future cities might look, to break down the walls and build as big as our imaginations will take us.

3. The building itself was not built to be a museum, but rather to be the home of the Pension Office–you’ll notice, for instance, that the rise of each stair is lower than we expect, since it was designed to allow injured veterans of the Civil War to access the upper floors more easily. How is the building used as an artifact? How does it inform the way the museum exhibits are placed and conceived, and how does the use of empty space change the museum? Could the exhibits and messages exist in a non-historic building or in a building constructed to hold the museum? What would that mean? What would that look like?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the National Building Museum, as a tourist, as a student on a field trip, as a tour guide talking to walking tour groups from the Jewish Historical Society about the building’s history and exterior, as a weary Washingtonian coming into Firehook for a cup of coffee, as a friend exploring the gift shop for the perfect birthday present.  Until this particular trip, though, I’d never taken a tour of the building. I thought I knew it well: stories of its construction by a Civil War veteran, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs; the existence of the 200+ busts that ring the upper floor; the later reappropriation of the building by the GAO and the amusing installation of cubicles into the great hall.

What the tour helped me realize is just how exactly the building was constructed for its intended use.  In addition to the low rise of the steps, the open atrium is designed not for aesthetic reasons but to allow the hot and humid Washington air to circulate more rapidly during the summer.  The columns aren’t actually made of marble, because they don’t need to be: it’s good for them to look pretty, but they need to be sturdy first and foremost.  A document track with a pulley system ringed each of the four balconies, allowing offices to send messages more easily.  Meigs even installed elevator shafts before elevators were available, with the forethought that they might be of use at a later time.

The great irony, then, is that the building’s current purpose is incongruous with the building itself.  One of my companions remarked that it would be possible to walk in and out of the building without knowing that one is in a museum.  The interior space is grand, but not inviting, said another; the dialogue and interaction that we seek in a museum is carried up into the atrium and floats away without us.  The atrium is full of light, but none of it is allowed to carry over into the exhibit spaces, even those whose artifacts would not be harmed by its presence.  The consensus among our group is that a museum about buildings could indeed work in a space that is not a historic building: other than thematic ties, the space itself is not a necessary element of the museum, nor are the exhibits necessary for the building.

So what is a National Building Museum? It is in and of historic buildings; it helps us to aspire and look to the future. It is a space that lets us interact within our groups, if we come with them, but a society living within its buildings is more than just our immediate groups. We ask of it more space to allow us to dream big together, with the museum, with strangers, and with friends living vicariously through our experiences.  Then, and only then, can we build bigger, build better, build stronger, and achieve the dream of a well-designed tomorrow. Can we use the Great Hall for a while? We want to make a better world.

Visiting with Kids:

The National Building Museum is great for the younger set, with a “Building Zone” set up just for them. For the older set, the museum’s education department runs a number of programs throughout the school year and the summer.

Catch it before it’s gone:

“Designing Tomorrow: America’s Worlds Fairs of the 1930s” closes September 5.

Next up:

The M365 team is headed to the Renwick to complete the American Art Museum galleries. Given today’s hurricane, we’ll probably check it out over Labor Day. Stay safe, all!

Super special thanks to Joseph Gruber (@josephgruber), Glenn Fitzpatrick (@gfitzp) and Uriel Klieger (@oocscience) for helping out with the visit, the ideas, and the answers to the questions. Go Juno!


About museums365

Museum educator, space lover, baseball fan, citizen history rabble-rouser.

Posted on August 27, 2011, in For the Wee'uns, History. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. If you’re looking for more social museum experiences, I have some more free time now (end of job) and there are several museums on your list that I haven’t visited yet!

    I love that Meigs thought of elevator shafts for future elevators. He was ahead of his time in thinking about accessibility! That forethought (for technological advances, and for inclusion of people who have disabilities) sounds like exactly the kind of “a well-designed tomorrow” you believe NBM can help inspire.

    • That aspect of the building’s history has always struck me as amazing, forward-thinking, and inspirational for new construction. I hope that NBM can carry on that legacy.

      Come with us to the Renwick, either 9/5 or 9/10?

      • I’m going to be in Columbia the next two weekends, so I can maybe come on the 5th if I’m back in DC. I’m trying to find temp work and volunteer work but I doubt I’ll have obligations on Labor Day. I’ve been to the Renwick before, but I haven’t gone in a while.

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