The Hall of Health and the Exhibits Modernization Program

In the 1950s US National Museum staff revitalized exhibits across the Smithsonian, completely transforming the Arts & Industries Building. 

You never know what you will be asked when you open up a reference request at the Smithsonian. With specialists on anything from astronomy to botany to history and everything in between, I’ve received questions about baseball, computers, naval history, and artic expeditions, just to name a few. One recent reference request asked about the U.S. National Museum’s Hall of Health in 1960.  

The Hall of Health was a section in the Arts and Industries Building curated by the Division of Medical Sciences. It explored the human body and how medical technology allows us to understand how our bodies work. It featured a video presentation and a “Transparent Woman” who demonstrated the major organs and systems of the human body through electronics, sound and light.

Visitors to Hall of Health, A&I Building

The hall opened on November 3, 1957, one of the many exhibits reimagined as part of the Exhibits Modernization Program. Spearheaded by Frank Taylor, then Assistant Director of the US National Museum, the Exhibits Modernization Program updated nearly all the exhibits in theNational Museum buildings. Though the glass and mahogany cases that were installed in 1881 were cutting edge in their day, by the 1940s they felt rather old fashioned. When Taylor returned from World War II, he was determined to revitalize the exhibits. The new exhibits were conceptual and thematic, with educational graphics and an engaging, modern look. 

The original exhibit cases showed objects grouped and classified in sets.

The Public Health Exhibit in the Arts and Industries Building, 1925.

"How Tall Are You Exhibit," Hall of Health, A&I Building
After the Exhibits Modernization Program exhibits focused on communicating ideas and using a few objects to illustrate concepts.

Division of Medical Sciences staff completely reworked all aspects of their exhibit. After four years of planning and development, what used to be the Public Health Gallery became the Hall of Health. It was all hands on deck to rethink what should be said and how to say it. Among the staff who contributed to this effort was Dr. John B. Blake. The task of revitalizing the exhibits was so all consuming that two years after the Hall of Health opens he wrote, “Unfortunately our overburdened exhibit staff has not yet had a chance to mount the eyeball exhibit yet in one of the panels we use in our Hall,  so it is not yet installed. However, I fully expect it to be an attractive and instructive feature for our visitors.” 

These new exhibits didn’t have long in the Arts & Industries Building. The National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, was created the same year the Hall of Health opened, and moved to a new, state-of-the-art building just seven years later in 1964.  

Related Resources

Baird’s Dream, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Health & Medicine, National Museum of American History

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