The Changing Meaning of the National Mall

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  • This book chapter discusses the evolution of this public area in Washington, D.C., from the time it was first conceived by Pierre L'Enfant as an urban avenue lined with public buildings. Although many plans for development of the space were offered over the years, it was long neglected; by 1850, only the Smithsonian Institution Building (the "Castle"), and the Washington Monument were being constructed. It was not until 1902, when the U. S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia submitted its report recommending the Mall be a natural park-like green space, that a concrete plan was formally outlined. The plan also called for buildings to be erected within the space, but specified they should have grand structure and purpose to symbolize America's status as a world power.
  • A Commission on Fine Arts was appointed in 1910, and over the ensuing years proved a venerable watchdog over the Mall's development. The author presents his view that quite apart from the physical changes that have occurred, even more radical have been changes over the past 40 years in the use and resulting symbolism of the Mall as host to an ever-growing number of public demonstrations. He states that these changes are also reflected in the evolution of the changing role of the Smithsonian over those same years, as exhibitions that had been presented from traditional perspectives changed as the Smithsonian's museums became more idea-driven.
  • These changes have not come easily during what the author terms as the Smithsonian's journey "from a temple to a forum," as several controversies have taken place concerning the presentation and interpretation of exhibitions. The author details two of these, "The West As America" at the National Museum of American Art, and "Enola Gay" at the National Air and Space Museum, and offers the opinion that while it is valid to look at museums as wonderful attics, they must also be places of scholarship and interpretation where celebration can often co-exist with controversy.


  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Adams, Robert McCormick 1926-2018
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • United States Congress
  • United States Commission of Fine Arts
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • Enola Gay (Bomber)
  • National Museum of American Art (U.S.)
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Enola Gay (Exhibition) (1995: Washington, D.C.)
  • West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Exhibition) (1991: Washington, D.C.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Two figures are included in the chapter.

Contained within

Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Landscape architecture
  • Art museums
  • Art, American
  • Education
  • Controversies
  • Secretaries
  • Exhibitions
  • Museums
  • Museums--Educational aspects
  • Museum curators


  • Mall, The (Washington, D.C.)
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

pp. 223-246, Chapter 8

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