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)

D. Architectural and Aesthetic Concerns

The Commission was not chosen for its architectural expertise; nor does it pretend to any. However, it was asked to consider "methods of presentation." In doing so, it could not fail to note two of the Museum's obvious architectural and aesthetic characteristics that confront every visitor with a challenge that is far from pleasant.

The mixed blessing of physical scale

NMAH has the benefit of enormous collections. As America's only national museum of American history, it has an obligation to address a very broad scope. So it is necessary and appropriate that the Museum is housed in a building that provides 200,000 square feet of exhibition space. A consequence, however, may be to compound the problem of incoherence.

The large scale makes it difficult to apprehend or comprehend the museum visually from any few points internally. This problem is exacerbated by an absence of open lines of sight (either horizontally or vertically). It has been made still worse by the steady addition of countless interior exhibition walls in the pursuit of additional display space. The practical effect is to eliminate any sense of vertical or horizontal openness, and to make it extremely difficult for visitors to orient themselves. Further, the sheer volume of floor space makes it impossible to visit even a substantial fraction of the museum in the amount of time that a typical visitor has available to spend (an hour and forty minutes). This, in turn, means that visitors cannot be provided with a single directed route through the museum. That technique is used by many smaller museums to impose a sense of intellectual order; or to provide, as some museums do, a powerful emotional experience. But the option of providing a single route through the Museum is simply not practicable for NMAH. Individual exhibits within NMAH can and often do employ the ordering techniques available to smaller museums. Yet that alone cannot address the question of the physical (and possible intellectual and emotional) relationships among the large number of individual exhibits that inhabit the NMAH.

The attic effect -- the problem of clutter, darkness, and confinement

Perhaps because of the pressure to reflect the fullness of American history, NMAH has taken the metaphor of "America's attic" to a regrettable extreme. Its building was originally designed with large glass window spaces that provided wonderful vistas -- views of the mall and the major monuments. The vistas are still there. But access to them -- visitors' ability to look through the glass -- has been blocked. The Museum is vast; but it seems confined. The problem is made worse by low levels of artificial lighting and the proliferation of interior walls. In meeting the ever-expanding demands for display space, the Museum has become cluttered. Lines of sight are often obstructed or short. Routes from one exhibit to another are often difficult to see. The sheer abundance of objects in close proximity to each other sometimes inhibits a visitor's ability to appreciate individual objects fully. And while the clutter of an attic may have its charm, at museum scale the charm is lost. The clutter can seem aesthetically repugnant, even oppressive, almost claustrophobic. It can discourage reflection and compound the impression of incoherence.

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