Viewing the Smithsonian in a Different Way

The Smithsonian Architectural History and Historic Preservation office serves as curator of the Smithsonian buildings.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Spring 2016. Through an internal Smithsonian leadership development program in 2016, I had the opportunity to work in the Architectural History and Historic Preservation office for a few months. This wonderful experience opened my eyes to other collections we have at the Smithsonian: the buildings. 

I now view these structures inside and outside with a different perspective and notice details that were not always obvious before. For example the glass wall on the west side of the National Air and Space Museum serves as a door to bring in aircraft.

AHHP was established in 1986 to serve as curator of the Smithsonian’s buildings, which include everything from the iconic Smithsonian Castle to the National Zoological Park animal buildings to the newest addition of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Part of the Office of Design, Planning, and Construction, AHHP’s role includes preservation, research, and education. In addition to handling the architectural history and preservation, the Castle Collection of Smithsonian antiques and art objects is also managed by AHHP. 

Construction of New National Air and Space Museum This behind-the-scenes view allowed me to learn how historic preservation of the Smithsonian’s buildings ties in with the current needs of the Smithsonian’s operations (building improvements, repairs, additions, etc.) and how this rich history informs important decisions regarding design, features, updates, and materials. This was achieved by attending meetings with various Smithsonian offices that included designers, project managers, architects, and others and with external agencies such as the Commission of Fine Arts and the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office

This rotation also included doing research on Smithsonian building history at the Archives, as well as the National Air and Space Museum Archives, in preparation for the National Air and Space Museum’s Determination of Eligibility document for the National Register of Historic Places (in which the Department of Interior states that a building or site is eligible to be evaluated for the National Register). My contribution focused on the building design, construction, and exhibit installation during 1972-1976. The museum opened July 1, 1976, to much fanfare. 

In my job as digital archivist, I am involved with archiving what Smithsonian museums and offices post on social media like Facebook. Working at AHHP gave me a chance to actually write posts for its Facebook page. I also completed an inventory of historic Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden drawings and blueprints. Some of them were immediately recognizable due to the familiar circular, doughnut shape of the building. This was a change from dealing with architectural drawings in digital form.

Every Smithsonian building is different and has a story that AHHP documents and shares. The Archives and AHHP are hoping for more collaborations in the future, as both work to preserve the Smithsonian’s history. 

Related Resources

Accession 12-517 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, Smithsonian Preservation Quarterly, 1990-1995, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Accession 06-225 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, Building Files, c. 1850-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives

History of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building

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