Fifty Years a Museum

Guest Post by Robert C. Post

This year, 2014, marks the golden anniversary of the National Museum of American History, a familiar presence that has changed somewhat since 1964. After 9/11, the driveway curving in from Constitution Avenue was blockaded; a cabbie can no longer drive you up to the door. Also, the museum has a different name than when it opened. The original name, the Museum of History and Technology, was changed in 1980, and for good reason—to help people understand that technology is a central component of our history, not distinct. But the building itself looks the same as in 1964, very “modern,” even with its tall slats intended to mirror the colonnade of the neoclassical Commerce Department across the street.


The MAH is not very old, not as museums go. To the west, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is still under construction. Designed to evoke the art of an ancient West African kingdom, the NMAAHC reminds us that several of the Smithsonian’s museums are newer and more architecturally innovative than MAH. Long forgotten is the hurtful MAH review by the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, although we may still recall her brave battle for New York’s Penn Station, which was being reduced to rubble even as the museum was getting its finishing touches. There was a special irony, for Penn Station had been a triumph of McKim, Mead, and White, once the grandest of American architectural firms. The “awkward attempt to marry the classical and the modern” in Washington was its final commission, and good riddance!, thought Huxtable.

But inside the museum! The exhibits pleased everyone, even Huxtable. More than anything, the designers wanted to dispel the image of “a Nation’s Attic” and capture the buoyant spirit of a World’s Fair. Visitors flocked to the new museum, more than five million the first year—said to have been the most ever recorded for any museum anywhere. They were not disappointed. The centerpiece was a Foucault pendulum swinging from 52 feet above the ground which demonstrated the rotation of the earth. A circle of wooden pegs fell, one by one, when they were struck by the bob. Dramatic, spellbinding, the pendulum became the museum’s signature, like the elephant in the Natural History Museum or, later, the Milestones of Flight exhibit in the Air and Space Museum. The pendulum, here was the place for groups that had scattered to plan a rendezvous, or for parents and children to sit quietly, wait for a peg to topple, and then cheer. David Shayt, a poet among the curators, called it “a unifying experience across time and generation.”

Now, the pendulum is gone. Or, rather, it is on display as a “relic” in an exhibit opening May 16, “Making a Modern Museum,” that marks the MAH’s fiftieth anniversary. The pendulum does not swing back and forth, nor will it ever. A few years ago the museum got a makeover, and the central space where the pendulum had swung was transformed. Now there is an atrium. The atrium is bright, but somehow seems bleak, say critics who declare that no other museum space in Washington is harder to distinguish from a shopping mall or airport. Presently one of the first Ford Mustangs, manufactured in 1964, is placed in exactly the spot once occupied by the circle of pegs. Can it replace the pendulum? Will visitors say to one another, “Meet you at the Mustang”? Maybe.

The initial controversy over the museum’s design has long since subsided. The marriage of classical and modern has become a pleasurable artifact of the 1960s. Awkward though it may have seemed at first, it is now just a reminder of the museum’s “yeasty” history. Yeasty is the expression that the distinguished museologist Harold Skramstad used to describe that MAH in a video produced for the anniversary exhibit by the History Channel. Watch it and see if you don’t agree.