Saturday, May 24, 2014

The History of American History

Two small displays currently up at the American History Museum explore the history of the museum itself, in honor of the 50th anniversary of its founding.  One is on the 2nd floor, in the Small Documents Gallery, and one is on the lower level, in the hallway.  I wonder why they didn't try to put these together; it would have made much more sense than having them on two entirely separate floors.  There's enough wall space outside the Small gallery to have held the photographs on the lower level.  If they couldn't manage this, why not do some cross-referencing?  Let people who are looking at one exhibit know there's another one on the same subject on another floor?  Not everyone checks the Smithsonian website as carefully as I do!  Oh well, if you have any interest in the history of the museum, these are both worth seeing.

Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the National Museum of American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 7, 2014

The original name of the National Museum of American History was the Museum of History and Technology.  The history part was tagged on to satisfy the political historians at the Smithsonian, the real focus was the technology. 

The Soviets were showcasing their technological achievements, and we had to do the same.  One can almost hear the cries in the halls of Congress, "We've got a technology museum GAP!"

So a new museum took shape on the Mall, one that combined modern style with columns reminiscent of the neighboring buildings.  Filled with artifacts from the Arts & Industries Building, (nicknamed "The Nation's Attic," it was full to overflowing with random collections of stuff that was important to telling the country's historical narrative, but was largely unorganized, not to mention un-air conditioned and dusty) and new acquisitions that highlighted the things Americans had built and invented, it featured exhibits such as "The Hall of Bridges and Tunnels."  To me, that doesn't seem the type of display to bring the crowds in droves, but attendance was high from the very start.

Over time, the museum changed its focus to America's cultural and social history, which is much more to my taste.  One of the more popular items on display, and one I'm sad to note is no longer up, was the Foucault Pendulum.  Designed to show the rotation of the earth, people would watch the ball knock over small pins and cheer when one went down.  Kitschy?  Well, yes, in the extreme.  Fun?  Absolutely yes.  I remember from school trips coming to Washington, DC and watching the pendulum myself.

Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 14, 2014

Meanwhile, down on the Lower Level, with the cafeteria and the ride simulators, is this display of photographs, of the museum's construction and its ever-changing displays.  Three of the major objects on display had to be specially installed; in fact the building is built around them: the 1401 steam engine, the enormous statue of George Washington in a Roman toga (which always strikes me as a bit odd) and the Gunboat Philadelphia.

There are several photos of the First Ladies Gowns, one of the most popular displays.  I remember seeing this as a child, and being disappointed that not all of the gowns are on display any more (turns out fabric doesn't last forever, and some of them are in such bad shape that they can no longer be on exhibit).  There are also photos and information about the Star Spangled Banner, including a photo of it hanging on the wall, which I remember from my trips as a child.  Of course, now, it has a far grander (and safer) display in dim lighting.

They also give some information about the future of the museum.  The West Wing is currently undergoing renovation.  That will finish in sometime next year (I think July, but don't quote me on that!) and then they'll close the East Wing and renovate that.  Not sure how long that will take, but I'll be glad when it's all over and the full museum is open again.

Verdict: If you have any interest in the history of this fine museum, don't miss these two shows.

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