Unfortunately, especially given the basic architecture of Washington, there is nothing that demonstrates local brick construction. More disturbing, nothing is said about the dirty little secret of so much construction over the past half-century: It is shoddy and reaching obsolescence. The exhibition won’t tell you that there is increasing concern that the average life span of the typical new American home could be from 30 to 50 years.
The disposable nature of American society is suggested (although, perhaps, not intentionally) in a long wall of objects typically found in homes over the past 200 years. Including plastic kiddie pools and a Farrah Fawcett poster, the display functions as a jolt to the memory and a test of historical knowledge. It will probably be the high point of the exhibition for families, and with a tortilla press and Islamic prayer rug chockablock with a 1950s cocktail set and 1806 Broadwood piano, it is admirably multicultural in its assemblage. But it’s hard to look at many of the objects that became household necessities in the past half-century — video games, answering machines, Barcaloungers — and not think of our burgeoning landfills.
The exhibition takes note of consumerism in one of a series of short films about basic themes of home and family life. And just when the photographs and images from old magazines and newspapers seem relentlessly and claustrophobically devoted to the standard-issue nuclear family, another series of films shows us Rodney White and Tom Brown, two men living in a beautiful prefabricated house in New York. It is one of six understated but evocative shorts that follow people through a typical day as they inhabit different kinds of living spaces, including an itsy-bitsy Tumbleweed Tiny House that has one room and barely 100 square feet of space.
The film featuring the male couple isn’t idle, token inclusiveness. One of the essential conclusions of this exhibition is how the home we make in our houses is a projection of our American-ness. For immigrant families, it is a place apart and a demonstration of common humanity. Creating a home humanizes us in two essential ways: It makes our life richer and more human, and it makes us seem more human to those around us. Basic metaphors of cultural inclusiveness — “a place at the table” — are derived domesticity. Not surprisingly, the controversy over same-sex marriage is often an argument about the sanctity of the home from two very different perspectives.
By the end of “House & Home,” you may feel some of the basic envy that motivates people who are addicted to home-and-garden shows and snooping around Sunday afternoon open houses. For so many Americans, the home isn’t something inherited, a cultural invariable handed down in some basic form for centuries upon centuries. The home is made, and if you can make it one way, you can make it another. Even if you are happy in your home, there is always someone who might be happier. The home is essential not just in grounding us but in making us restless. For all of its omissions, “House & Home” does a good job of demonstrating how our living space is the first and most fundamental theater for our relentless self-invention.
House & Home
on long-term display (through May 1, 2017) at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org.