Saturday, May 31, 2008
Building A Museum
Washington DC has a lot of museums. A lot. One of the biggest ones in physical size is the National Building Museum. It sits several blocks off the Mall and is located in what used to be the Pension Building. The Pension Building was built in the 1880s as a central place to process Civil War veterans’ benefits. The huge open floor in the center was originally banks of desks and files. Nowadays, the building is a traditional site for the quadrennial inauguration balls.
For a huge building it’s a little light on exhibits. It has two permanent exhibits, one on building materials and one on the history of Washington, DC. The centerpiece of the DC exhibit is a pair of models showing how the DC Mall looked around 1902 and how it would look after the Mall as we know it was built. Looking at the model reveals subtle differences between the plan and the execution, but over a hundred years later, the general intent is the same.
The big temporary exhibit is a retrospective of Eero Saarinen, the architect behind Dulles Airport, JFK Airport’s TWA Terminal, and the St Louis Gateway Arch. The exhibit also includes examples of his furniture which is positively Jetson-like. Seeing all this 60s architecture and furniture was like walking through an Austin Powers set. For all the attempts to define the future, this branch of Modernism looks positively dated.
All the swoopy curves and bright white surfaces have a Tomorrowland feel. That future with flying cars and meals in pills that never quite arrived. It's amazing how forty years of time have dated a look worse than Art Deco or Gothic or even Neo-Classical. We now look back on this era and marvel at how new the future looked.
In the center of the building center was an activity inspired by the Gateway Arch. There were 21 numbered foam blocks. The goal was to stack them to form an arch. It looked easier than it was. If the blocks weren’t perfectly aligned, the arch would tip over and collapse. It took my dad and I to hold the blocks while my wife handed us blocks to add and even after that, it only stood unsupported for a few seconds before collapsing.
After exhausting the exhibits and the gift shop, we walked over to find my brother and his brood at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here the Memorial Day weekend tourists were out if force. Crowds of visitors made walking through the exhibits nearly impossible.
So if you ever want a large quiet place to take in some history, give the Building Museum a try.