The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Tomorrow, on Friday, May 16th, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) will celebrate its 50th anniversary with the opening of two exhibits; “Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Museum of American History” and “Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History.” “Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Museum of American History” will examine NMAH and its evolution since its inception in 1964. “Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History” will look at “the transformation of the museum from one of history and technology into a museum devoted to American history.”
To celebrate the launch of these new exhibits, here's a look back at a few of NMAH's exhibits from its opening until today.
- The History of the National Museum of American History
- Happy 50th Anniversary, NMAH!, Pam Henson, The Bigger Picture
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
RIP architect Hans Hollein, designer of the inaugural exhibition, MANtransFORMS at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 1976. The exhibit (see images below) examined everyday objects and the ways they were adapted by different people in different places and times.
- Hans Hollein, Architect of Witty Designs, Dies at 80, New York Times Obituaries
- MANtransFORMS Exhibit, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
On this day in 1879 ground was broken for the construction of the United States National Museum building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building. Its concrete foundations were begun on April 29th and the brick-work of the walls on May 21st. The main walls would be completed by November 1st.
Closed to the public since 2004, the Arts and Industries Building began undergoing a repair and restoration project to fix and upgrade the exterior of the building in 2009. Unfortunately due to financial reasons, the building will not reopen at the end of 2014 as originally planned. It was to have held an interim program called Smithsonian Innovation Space, but after a year of program planning and financial review, the Smithsonian concluded that the cost of rehabilitating the building for public use and operating it exceeded its available funding sources at this time.
The exterior of the building has been structurally stabilized and the Smithsonian will continue to explore options to reopen the building, but it will remain closed to the public until further notice. For more information about the history and renovation of the Arts and Industries Building please see the video below.
- Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Many people think of the National Mall in Washington, DC, as one long undifferentiated stretch of green from the base of Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument. In times past, however, parts of the Mall not only had specific names but were covered by structures unimaginable today, including a railroad station and train tracks. The plot bounded by Constitution Avenue on the north, Independence Avenue on the south, Sixth Street on the east and Seventh Street on the west is a good example.
Beginning in 1855, the Armory Building, built to store arms for the city's volunteer militia companies, occupied the southeastern corner of this twenty-two-acre area, which then became known as Armory Park or Armory Square. During the Civil War, the building anchored a hospital complex with multiple temporary structures. After the close of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Armory Building was used as temporary storage for exhibit materials transferred to the United States National Museum. It was later used by the US Fish and Fisheries Commission (1881-1932). The building stood on the site until 1964. The west end of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (built 1972-1976) occupies the site today.
In 1887, the head of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds wrote Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian as well as head of the Fish Commission, to suggest renaming Armory Park in honor of Joseph Henry: "Among the eminent scientists of the present century, no man stood higher in every possible way, than your distinguished predecessor, Prof. Henry." Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, had been elected in 1846 as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and continued until his death in 1878.
Despite the renaming, the old name persisted. In 1913, fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott described the site as Armory Square in reference to the proposed (but never built) George Washington Memorial Building, which was to border Constitution Avenue and be administered by the Smithsonian. Four years later, however, when temporary buildings for use of the army and navy departments began to cover the site, official documents referred to the location as Henry Park.
At the time of the renaming in 1887, the northern end of the site was dominated by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, which had been built in the mid-1870s, and a 510-ft.-long train shed that extended partway across the Mall. Tracks continued south across the Mall along Sixth Street. The station and tracks were abandoned in 1907 when Union Station was opened; the old station was demolished the following year. Clay tennis courts that had been installed beginning in 1916 were removed in 1936 to make way for the construction of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (built 1937-1941). Complaints following the demolition of the tennis courts included one from E. Claude Babcock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and also secretary of the Smithsonian Tennis Association.
A search of old issues of The Washington Post might lead one to conclude that the name "Henry Park" went out of existence with the tennis courts in the mid-1930s. But recently it seems to have resurfaced. A muggle Quidditch tournament was to be held in Henry Park in April 2011, before muddy conditions forced it to relocate. Those planning to attend comedian Jon Stewart's 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity were directed to "an area known (to someone, at least) as East Seaton Park and Henry Park, between 3rd and 7th streets NW on the Mall." In response, a commenter complained, "There is no East Seaton Park, and there is no Henry Park. In fact, people keep moving those labels around the Mall on the Google Maps. It's all the National Mall."
Despite that claim, Henry Park has appeared in the very official Geographic Names Information System, maintained by the United States Geological Survey, since 1991. The entry lists "Armory Grounds" as a variant name. If you follow the link under Mapping Services to "GNIS in Google Map," you will see a red balloon in the correct section of the Mall. But if you click the red balloon to see "feature detail," you are taken to a tiny Henry Park designated by an icon just southwest of the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues near the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Might the wizards of Hogwarts have something to do with this transformation?
- Record Unit 7471 - George Washington Memorial Association, Records, 1890-1922, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Dian Olson Belanger, "The Railroad in the Park: Washington's Baltimore & Potomac Station, 1872-1907," Washington History, vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1990), pp. 4-27.
- For information on Henry Park, see Kay Fanning, Cultural Landscape Inventory (Inventory Number 600213), 2006, pp. 12-20 (chronology), and 48 [graphic], and Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-678, pp. 15, 18, 20, 36-38.
- For additional information on E. Claude Babcock, see Morgan Baker, "The Federal Diary," Washington Post, April 7, 1935.
- World Cup VII, International Quidditch Association