Director John Gray shares the joyful moments and lessons learned in opening a new wing
Now that the first floor of our West Wing is open, I was curious what the head of our museum, Elizabeth MacMillan Director John Gray, thought about the big opening, this summer's focus on innovation, and what's next for the museum.
One of the first things visitors see in the new innovation floor is the workshop of Ralph Baer, the "Father of Video Games." Why is his workshop an appropriate landmark object to introduce our new floor?
A few steps into our first floor, right past the American flag made of Legos, you're at the axis of the East and West Wings of the museum. To your left, the John Bull locomotive. To your right, Ralph Baer's workshop. We use big, landmark objects like the locomotive and the workshop as a way of introducing larger ideas, engaging people as they enter the main wings. The landmark objects captivate visitors but also prepare them for what they'll see as they move deeper into the floor.
Our visitors aren't expecting Baer's workshop—they're curious about it, it draws them in. You see them start to get engaged in inventors' minds, inventors' places, and that's a great introduction to the floor. The story unfolds with his life, what he invented, and then you realize he was an immigrant, he came here from Germany. You realize he was one of those really extraordinary human beings—most of us would say he's an ordinary American, but he did extraordinary things. Then you're hooked. And you peel off from that to visit the rest of the wing.
You cut a lot of ribbons on new exhibitions and learning spaces this summer. What's your favorite memory from opening day?
The whole process was joyful, both about what had been done and about larger ideas around America and innovation. But the moment I remember most is when a confetti cannon went off too early during an opening event. Nobody was expecting that and some of us ducked and then everyone laughed and applauded. That's what we've all felt this summer as we celebrate the opening of the new wing—lots of joy and a few surprises.
History museums always build exhibits. But the new wing also integrates programming and educational spaces, a lab, and the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. Why was it important to include programming space?
We are trying to make the National Museum of American History alive, engaging, and appealing. By incorporating programs into the middle of exhibitions, you animate and expand on the exhibitions. We want active participation on the part of our visitors, so we're designing for that by incorporating programming space into exhibition space.
Now that the first floor of the West Wing is open, what are we learning from it and its relationship to the rest of the museum?
The West Wing brings a new coherence to the way we present American history and knits together multiple exhibition, narratives, and educational experiences. Other floors have exhibitions that are presented as separate and compelling stories side-by-side—such as military history, development of waterways, numismatics. For example, when you are in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition, you learn about the knitting together and creation of the nation. It's a powerful experience. But when you leave the exhibition, it's challenging to follow that narrative on the rest of the second floor. We need intellectual and aesthetic connections to bridge between that incredible experience and the rest of the museum.
The new wing is an experiment, and it's leading us to adopt a unified and interconnected approach as we reenvision the rest of the West Wing and the museum around American ideals and ideas such as freedom, democracy, diversity, and culture. This way, we can provide a more coherent experience that invites visitors to develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of American history. That's how we help create a much more humane nation, by unifying these stories. When you leave, you'll have a clear understanding of these fundamental American themes.
The smell of colonial chocolate has been wafting through the new spaces as part of a new onstage activity. Why do you think it's important to use food as a way to understand our shared history?
I'd argue that history is important and that our history is the most important thing that we can know—where we came from, who we are. To understand that, you do need portals through which to experience American history. Everybody shares a love of food, so it's an important portal into American history for us.
Colonial chocolate to me doesn't taste very good because I'm used to 21st-century chocolate. My modern taste buds are accustomed to something very different—and that's a teachable moment. Learning from chocolate's history—innovations in trade, finance, culture, taste—you talk about quality of life, cultural issues, dozens of topics. You can start with food and go in any direction. Food history is also a great way to set the table for discussions of some of the more difficult subjects in American history. You can understand so much about people when you understand the food they grow, make, and eat.
Now that opening is behind you, what are you looking forward to?
We're going to premiere an introductory film for the public in the Warner Bros. Theater that links together some of the larger themes of American history. Visitors will walk out with an eagerness to see how they can explore these important ideas in our museum and learn how our history fits together. We're also exploring American history and innovation through programs such as the Innovation Festival, Food History Weekend, and a history film forum. At the same time, we're focusing on making museum experiences more accessible through Web programming, connecting with audiences online to share what we're doing. We're getting everyone engaged in American history, which is more essential now than ever.
The new wing includes windows that provide a beautiful view of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in 2016. What are you looking forward to once our neighboring museum is open?
The most exciting thing about the National Museum of African American History and Culture is that this striking and important museum will be open—welcoming visitors in and sharing the exhibitions with the larger public.
Visually, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is going to be a strong pull to bring more people to this side of the National Mall. The extraordinary architecture of that museum is a definitive statement about the history and the beauty of African American heritage and culture, and it's going to be great to have that next door to us. We share programming already, but the most important underlying philosophical and intellectual connection between the museums is that we all tell the American story, and we tell it from various perspectives. But at the core, it's always an American story.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.