Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


(II. A Challenging Context—NMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges)

B. The Problem

In spite of its many strengths, however, NMAH will not find it easy to meet the high standard that is reasonably demanded of it. The Museum faces difficult problems in a context that is highly challenging.

Indeed, there is a threshold challenge in just getting a clear view of how "the problem" (or problems) should be conceived. One might start with concern for the visitors' perspective. At a superficial level, recent surveys suggest that visitors to NMAH are not disappointed. This is understandable. Although they may complain quite legitimately about logistics, the almost inescapable reality is that most people can find something or other of at least passing interest at the NMAH. But that, of course, is a rather low standard. Achieving it does not assure that the Museum is meeting what some might take to be its responsibilities to educate or inspire. To meet this higher standard, the Museum would first have to pass a test of comprehensibility. It would not -- and many say it should not -- have to be didactic. But it would presumably have to be structured to present either a coherent set of provocative questions, or a coherent set of possible thematic interests, or a coherent sequence of topics and Museum experiences.

The problem of "incoherence"

As it is now, the Museum does not seem to meet any obvious test of comprehensibility or coherence. Indeed, in the most basic physical sense, visitors frequently have difficulty orienting themselves. Even some curators who have spent their entire professional lives in the NMAH building get lost. Signs have recently been added to try to help provide some direction. But the problem goes beyond signage. Many serious observers and most members of the Commission believe that the problem has to do, more fundamentally, with the Museum's content and the organization of its presentation. Visitors often expect that a history museum should have a clear chronological structure. They cannot find this at the NMAH. It does not exist. Nor is any other organizing principle evident. It is unclear why particular exhibits are where they are in relation to each other. It is also unclear why some subjects are treated by the Museum when others that seem more important are not. A distinguished American historian has said, "I have been coming to NMAH for more than twenty-five years, and I still find it incoherent."

Some correctly argue that a degree of incoherence is natural -- a consequence of a museum's organic growth over time. Some correctly argue that fostering a degree of cognitive dissonance or mystery among visitors may stimulate questioning and learning. And some correctly argue that there may be undesirable costs associated with too much coherence: imposing any one person's conception of order upon an interpretation of American history risks doing injustice to other people's. But that said, there is still a balance to be struck. And it is the Commission's strongly held view that, in its current condition, the NMAH is tilted too far toward incoherence.

If forced to choose, many (not all) members of the Commission would identify this problem of incoherence as number one -- an important place to start. But, of course, the incoherence problem might be understood as merely a symptom of other problems. Or it could be understood as a problem whose solution might simply expose other problems more clearly. In any case, it is not the only serious problem facing NMAH. Several other problems, constraints, and challenges must be understood as part of the larger contextual difficulty. These are grouped below under four headings: Contextual Realities; Architectural and Aesthetic Concerns; Constraints; and Management Challenges. Together, this set amounts to a much larger dilemma than the obvious problem of incoherence. Its complexity is not easily captured by a single heading.

Table of Contents | II.C. Contextual Realities -->