The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History plans to transform how its audiences experience history by creating a multiplex of exhibition galleries, experiential programs and performance spaces and an education center within a 120,000-square-foot wing of its 50-year-old McKim, Mead and White designed building.
The wing’s first floor will open July 1, 2015, with the second and third floors opening in 2016 and 2017. Each floor has a central theme: The first floor will focus on innovation and feature exhibits that explore the history of American business and showcase “hot spots” of invention. The second floor will look at the nation Americans build together with exhibits on democracy and immigration and migration with the third floor highlighting culture as an essential component of the American identity.
Sweeping window vistas on all three levels—including the addition of a first-floor panoramic window—will connect visitors to National Mall landmarks and offer a view of Alexander Calder’s “Gwenfritz” stabile. In the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Calder was donated in 1969 to the Smithsonian for display on the American History Museum grounds.
“Our goal is to make history essential by presenting the compelling ideas and ideals of America and animating them through transformative experiences designed to inspire participation in our American democracy,” said John Gray, the museum’s director. “Technology and multimedia will allow visitors to view vibrant presentations with complex storytelling as well as create opportunities to participate in dynamic discourse and a variety of hands-on learning opportunities throughout.”
Cost for the renovation, including exhibitions, programs and endowed positions includes $58.4 million in federal funds and more than $100 million to be raised through private support from corporations, associations, individuals and foundations. Architecture firm EwingCole is responsible for the planning and design and Grunley Construction is the general contractor. The renovation is targeting a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver Certification.
First-Floor Exhibitions and Program Spaces
Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison patent models will set the stage for the innovation theme in the first-floor concourse area that leads into the wing. In collaboration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, this space will display technological breakthroughs from various eras, trademarks and explain intellectual property protection. It also will showcase inventions of National Inventors Hall of Fame members. One of those inventors, Ralph Baer, recognized as the father of video games, is donating his workshop to the museum. It will be the floor’s landmark object.
Three new signature exhibitions, including the Smithsonian’s first-ever exhibit on business history, anchor the space. “American Enterprise” will open in the Mars Hall of American Business; the Gallery of Numismatics History will host “The Value of Money” and the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention will feature “Places of Invention.”
Collectively, with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation gallery and its Spark!Lab, more than 20,000 square feet on this floor form an education center—a laboratory for exploring inventive creativity. Other education spaces include The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, which will engage visitors with activities and objects showing everyday things that changed everything. The SC Johnson Conference Center will be the hub of the museum’s teacher workshops and K-12 electronic field trips. The Wallace H. Coulter Performance Stage and Plaza will feature food, music and theater programs and includes a full demonstration kitchen. The museum’s Archives Center and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in the Smithsonian Libraries Gallery will return to this space.
In 2008, the museum reopened after a two-year architectural transformation of its central core, including the addition of a five-story skylit atrium, a grand staircase to link the museum’s first and second floors and a state-of-the-art gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner.
Through unrivaled collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the richness and complexity of American history. The museum helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. For information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. Located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25).