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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

‘If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’ – Opening the Museum of History and Technology

Frank A. Taylor, 1962,
photographer unknown,
SIA, SIA2010-0495.
When the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, was opened to the public in January of 1964, its Director, Frank A. Taylor, could survey the new exhibits with great satisfaction.  As he noted in his oral history interviews in Smithsonian Institution Archives, a curator usually only gets one shot to create an exhibit, and the day the exhibit opens, the curator knows how the exhibit should have been designed.  Rarely does a curator get a chance to redo the exhibit in a year or two, incorporating what he or she learned from the earlier installation.  But that was the case for the Smithsonian’s history exhibits in the 1950s and 1960s.

Taylor was curator of engineering at the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum (USNM) and, when he returned from serving in World War II, he found the USNM and its exhibits looked old and musty and not terribly interesting. So in 1940s and 1950s, Taylor initiated a systematic ‘Exhibits Modernization Program’ during which most of the exhibits in the National Museum were updated.  The new history exhibits included the Life in Early America, Gowns of the First Ladies, Textile Machinery and Fibers, Textile Processing, Power Machinery, Farm Machinery, Printing Arts, Military History, Numismatics, Hall of Health, and History of Medicine, Dentistry, and Pharmacy.  The First Ladies gowns had been taken out of their individual cases and were displayed in reconstructions of eight White House rooms, decorated in period style from its earliest appearance to the 1950s, with architectural details recovered from the White House during a recent renovation.  

First Ladies Hall,
Arts and Industries Building,
1920s, SIA, mah-11064b.    

First Ladies Hall,
Arts and Industries Building,
1950s, SIA, mah43539d
First Ladies Hall, 1972,
SIA, SIA2010-3412.   

The “Transparent Woman” in the Hall of Health taught museum-goers the latest in medical knowledge.  Special federal funding for the Exhibits Modernization Program allowed Taylor to hire new staff to edit and design modern exhibits, experiment with new display techniques, attract the attention of the public and the United States Congress with openings for each new hall, and demonstrate that the Smithsonian could use federal funding to great effect.  Taylor also resumed a campaign to secure a building for a technology museum.

Transparent Woman in the Hall of Health,
Arts and Industries Building,
1957, photographer unknown, SIA, 2002-10651.

On June 28, 1955, Congress passed 6 Stat. 189 which provided authorization and funding to construct “a suitable building for a Museum of History and Technology.”  Architect Walker O. Cain of McKim, Mead and White designed the new museum in a post-war modern style.  Inside, Benjamin Lawless led a team of designers that brought exciting new ideas to museum displays, including sounds, new lighting, interesting display techniques and graphics, and even smells to engage visitors.   When the new building opened, Taylor felt that they had got the exhibits right, correcting things from the Exhibits Modernization era.   Over the next several years, new exhibits, such as the Physical Science Hall, opened regularly, attracting new audiences and press coverage for the new museum.

As we celebrate the National Museum of American History’s 50th anniversary, it is interesting to trace the long path to the new museum, from post-war dreams, to a new era of museum exhibits, to a building and exhibits worthy of the name, National Museum of American History

Pamela M. Henson

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