The Magazine

The Past Isn't What It Used To Be

The remaking of the mixed-up National Museum of American History.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which squats like an immense, unopened crate of machine parts on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., closed its doors for a two-year renovation in September 2006, and here's the interesting thing: Hardly anybody seemed to notice, or care. A press release, a squib in the local paper, and then .  .  . silence. In the first weeks after the shuttering, you might catch sight of a forlorn tourist tugging at the locked door and turning away in disappointment, but the disappointment just proved that the tourist had never been inside. Only those who have actually entered the Smithsonian's American history museum, eager to dive into the drama and wonder of the country's past, know how disappointing a museum can be.

The NMAH has been disappointing tourists for 44 years, since its opening in 1964 as the premier showcase for the public presentation of American history. By a long stretch it has been the least popular of the mall's Big Three museums. Most years it's drawn roughly half as many visitors as the Museum of Natural History next door and a third fewer than the Air and Space Museum across the mall, despite the thousands of schoolkids bused in from the surrounding suburbs as a painless way for their teachers to juice up their social studies classes. There have been years when even the snoozey National Gallery of Art, filled with still-lifes and hunks of marble, rivaled the NMAH as a tourist draw.

We might credit this to the often lamented indifference to history on the part of Americans--a forward-looking people too consumed with getting ahead to dawdle over the past--but just as likely the museum's nearly half-century of failure is the fault of the museum itself: of the unsightly building that houses it and of the exhibits it has mounted and, perhaps most of all, of the tedious and voguish view of history its curators have imposed upon visitors.

The museum officially reopened last month, and there were hints that its long record of failure was about to be reversed. Attendance for the Thanksgiving weekend was nearly three times what it was before the renovation. In ceremonies to mark the occasion, the president delivered a speech, followed by the first lady. Colonial pipers piped and historical reenactors reenacted, and the unavoidable Colin Powell--fast becoming our nation's toastmaster general, as George E. Jessel was to an earlier generation--read the Gettysburg Address. The words "revitalization" and even "rebirth" were tossed around by several of the speakers. Museum flacks emphasized that the reopening marked the completion of only the first phase of a planned three-phase overhaul. What's to come was suggested by Brent Glass, the museum's director for the last six years, who said in an interview as the renovation began, "We're looking at an intellectual change as well as an architectural change." And the changes were long overdue, as everyone seemed to agree. "A far better museum has been made here," said the historian David McCullough.

For now the architectural transformation is the most noticeable change. Anyone who had spent dim hours in the old building can only marvel. The original architects had designed 300,000 square feet of public space to suit the needs more of curators than the public, whose convenience and interests were ignored with iron discipline. The interior admitted little outside light, making it easier to protect old documents and other artifacts but leaving visitors to fumble through the shadows. Escalators and elevators were tucked away in remote corners, and glyphic signage offered no help in getting from one floor to another--and unintentionally raised the question of why you'd want to bother. Ceilings suspended low over long hallways confirmed the subterranean gloom. Even the boosters in the Society of Architectural Historians, in their Washington guidebook, had harsh words: "The lack of clear architectural order and hierarchy have resulted in incoherent interiors, where visitors are disoriented and regularly have to be directed to exits, as the architecture does not provide the necessary clues." It was an unfriendly place.