On the other hand, the name reflected the curatorial organization of the Museum and its component collections. We did have world-class collections of technological artifacts, and some of these collections and related exhibitions were international in scope. When I worked in the Photographic History Collection, we tried to document the entire history of photography, including technology and art, regardless of the national origin of the artifacts and photographs. In displays of photographic equipment (such as cameras) or photographs, we acknowledged nationalities in a neutral manner without emphasis or conclusions. Of course, the Museum tended to accumulate more American items than non-American, for a variety of reasons—not the least of which was sheer convenience. Before I moved from Photographic History to the Archives Center I was devoting special attention to the acquisition of European and Japanese photographs.
If you entered the second floor from the Mall entrance, you were immediately confronted by the enormous Star-Spangled Banner, hanging vertically on the far wall. This iconic patriotic artifact symbolized American history, and the first floor was indeed devoted to American political history and cultural history (including the popular First Ladies’ gowns exhibition in its various iterations, which arguably combined political and cultural history). The third floor sometimes seemed like a hodge-podge, with space allocated to American military history, plus exhibit halls on numismatics and postal history, textiles, ceramics and glass, graphic arts, photography, etc. These displays were related because they represented technologies used to produce objects embodying visual communication, aesthetic design, or art.
One momentous event in the history of the building was a major fire on the third floor in 1970 (caused by a malfunctioning computer on display), but I couldn't work that story into my script, nor could I locate appropriate documentary photographs. The Museum was very lucky: no collection artifacts were destroyed or seriously damaged in the fire, and a special infusion of Congressional funds for repairs was sufficient to complete the Hall of Photography, the Hall of Graphic Arts, and a Hall of News Reporting between them. The postal history display was cleverly linked to Graphic Arts via a Benjamin Franklin period setting, since Franklin was both a printer and postmaster. These adjacent "permanent" exhibitions formed a series on the theme of communication--although this may not have been obvious to the casual visitor.
|"1876: A Centennial Exhibition," a re-creation of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, in the Arts and Industries Building,, opened May 10, 1976. This section displays industrial wares by such companies as Reed & Barton, Doulton & Co., and Meriden Britannia Co. Photographer unidentified. SI Archives, Historic Images of the Smithsonian.|
Combine those new initiatives and directions with various long-standing problems of infrastructure and varying approaches to the Museum's philosophy or agenda, and the stage was set for other far-reaching changes. The most fundamental issue, in my estimation, was that the Museum opened to the public in 1964 without its full complement of “permanent” exhibitions. Before construction, spaces had been allocated for exhibit “halls” that would correspond directly to the curatorial units, which had both the responsibility and privilege of making most of the decisions about what would be displayed, with considerable independence. The Division of Ceramics and Glass had its “Hall of Ceramics and Glass” and the Division of Civil Engineering had its “Hall of Civil Engineering,” for example. However, many of these exhibit spaces were undeveloped due to insufficient funds—and many remained empty, year after year. From time to time these spaces were employed for other purposes, and their future grew murky: some of the planned exhibit halls never materialized. That reality, combined with the occasional criticism of the Museum as being confusing to visitors—who didn’t always comprehend the “two museums in one” concept; plus far-reaching philosophical changes in the entire museum world which tended to privilege (as academics like to say) thematic displays over the discipline-specific; plus the already aging infrastructure of the building needing repairs, etc.; plus a sense that the Museum needed changes to revitalize it, eventually led to major architectural modifications as well. These assertions are over-simplifications which omit other significant factors, but they constitute more than I had room to say in my exhibit labels!
One of the consequences of the major re-design of the Museum’s center core was the final removal of what many regarded as the Museum’s signature object, the Foucault pendulum, which was perhaps as symbolically important as the Star-Spangled Banner. Certainly it suggested that the Museum would no longer emphasize science and technology. One might say that the pendulum disappeared incrementally, having been pulled out of the way temporarily for various special programs, then having its cable shortened so it swung on the second floor through a much shorter arc than on the first floor--and eventually vanished, to the dismay of some repeat visitors. Adding a skylight to the center of the building meant that the very popular pendulum was being retired from service, almost certainly forever. The pendulum bob now rests immobile in a glass case in Arthur Molella’s exhibition, “Making a Modern Museum.” See also a related blog by Robert C. Post, "Fifty Years a Museum." Ironically, there still remains a symbol of science and technology on the Mall side of the Museum—sculptor Jose de Rivera’s gleaming “Infinity.” Documentation indicates that he was selected precisely to create a work to convey this melding of science, technology, modernity, and art to characterize the Museum.
Developing “my” exhibition was a challenge. Although I was the curator of record, and Russell Cashdollar was the appointed designer, we had lots of help. We had a project manager, Ann Burrola, to keep us on track and on time, but we also had weekly meetings that included other staff, most of whom were stakeholders in the exhibition in some sense. I didn’t always get my way! It was certainly a collaborative effort, and the exhibition would have looked quite different if I had always prevailed. In the first place, I showed far fewer photographs than I had intended because the director of NMAH, John Gray, wanted the images to be large. I have to admit that this constraint did keep the exhibit from being too verbose or text-heavy. If I could have shown the sixty or seventy photographs that I had envisioned, there would have been sixty or seventy explanatory captions that might have overwhelmed the viewer. As I have already indicated, the history of the Museum is complex and multi-faceted, and it really needs a book-length treatment.
|Colombian dancers demonstrating traditional dance in Museum, ca. 2013. Photographer unidentified.|
|Actor Joel Grey (left) at the ceremony for his donation of costumes from the musical “Cabaret,” 2013. Photographer unidentified.|
Another consequence of the work on this exhibition was to make a few corrections in Smithsonian records. I owe Nigel Briggs my gratitude for observing that an SI Archives photograph was mislabeled in the SIRIS catalog entry as depicting the opening reception for the Museum in 1964. The picture had appealed to me not only as a record of the opening, but because it showed a subject which would no longer be deemed appropriate for a museum of “American” history—images and artifacts obviously related to India. Nigel knew that the photograph depicted a traveling exhibition devoted to Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, photographed, organized and designed by the famous husband-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, and wanted that added to the caption. Closely inspecting the image proved that Nigel was correct, and by conducting simple research, I found that the exhibition opened in the Museum months later, in 1965. It wasn’t a photograph of the opening reception for the Museum—I found nothing suitable—but it still showed the kind of exhibition which could occur in our Museum in the 1960s, but would not in the 2010s, a point which was still useful to make. Pam Henson at SI Archives happily corrected the SIRIS record for this image.
|Traveling exhibition designed by Charles and Ray Eames, titled "Jawaharlal Nehru: His Life and His India," on display at the new Museum of History and Technology, now known as National Museum of American History, from October 26, 1965, to January 2, 1966. Photographer unidentified. Historic Images of the Smithsonian catalog.|
Curator of Photography, NMAH Archives Center