An Audio Anniversary: Groundbreaking at the Hirshhorn

As the Smithsonian Institution Archives, one of our main responsibilities is to keep the record of the history of the Smithsonian Institution itself—a huge task since the Smithsonian is made up of nineteen museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo. A big part of that overall account is the history of each of the Smithsonian museums and the related documents, photographs, video, and audio that help tell the story of each museum’s founding. The Smithsonians Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as it appears today, Courtesy of the Smithson Abram Lerner, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG), is standing next to Jose Just last week, one of our volunteers, Peter Finkel, transferred audio from the 1969 groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden found in our collections related to the Hirshhorn. This recording is part of a larger collection of audiovisual materials that had previously been maintained by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library, later becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' collections. The materials were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution Archives last year. The original recording was on an LP and transferred to a Digital Audio Tape in 1998. Peter was able to transfer the event from the tape to our computers and servers. It seemed like the perfect time to put this audio up here since Saturday, January 8th was the anniversary of the museum’s groundbreaking. The building of the Hirshhorn was momentous in many ways: the founding donor, Joseph Hirshhorn, came from humble immigrant beginnings and the extent of his tremendous collection wasn’t even recognized until the early 1960s; the design of the museum itself was both praised and slammed by many critics; and to this day, the museum holds one of the most extensive and important collections of contemporary art in the world. Aerial view of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden under construction, 15 August 1972, by Unid In the 28-minute audio file below, you can hear the then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, as well as Chief Justice Warren, Joseph Hirshhorn, and President Johnson, speak (please note: there is a long tone at the beginning of the recording before the audio starts around 50 seconds). It is also peppered with noise from the event, including a rousing version of “Hail to the Chief” and police sirens. Hirshhorn Groundbreaking Ceremony, January 8, 1969.

courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

The recording is an insight into the time period—the United States was in the middle of the great space race, and with the December 1968 Apollo 8 mission, had become the first country to successfully orbit the moon. One month later, President Johnson waxed poetic in his speech at the Hirshhorn, linking the astronauts’ Washington welcome to the museum’s groundbreaking: “The flight of Apollo 8 and the birth of the Hirshhorn museum tells us something about this country and its people. We’re in love with science, change, progress, and technology. We are restless, questing, deeply moved by art and its symbols.” He then noted that the museum, “affirms our people’s intention to voyage in both the outer reaches of space and the inner planes of the heart.” These kinds of records are interesting because they’re not just about the history of the Hirshhorn—they illuminate the history of architecture and contemporary art, their presentation in the United States, and broader American history during a time of great change and innovation. We hope to dig out some other gems from our collections for you over the next few months. In the meantime, read more about the history of the Hirshhorn on its website and explore more of SIA’s collections related to the museum. A big thanks to Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig and Jennifer Wright for their ideas and help with this blog post.

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