When a Cutting-Edge Exhibit Is Housed in History

The renovated Museum of National History hall, bucking a trend that emphasizes the horizontal experience of walking through a space, is designed to immerse visitors in the building's architecture.
The renovated Museum of National History hall, bucking a trend that emphasizes the horizontal experience of walking through a space, is designed to immerse visitors in the building's architecture. (By Chip Clark -- National Museum Of Natural History)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

The 1908 painting "Diana of the Tides" is an exuberantly over-the-top exercise in turn-of-the-century decorative art: Diana rides a clamshell chariot, pulled by four obstreperous horses that charge out of the froth and spray of the ocean. At least that's what grainy photographs of the painting show. Because since the 1960s, the painting, which hangs at the far end of the National Museum of Natural History's Dinosaur Hall, has been covered by a wall. Like all the rest of the space's original Beaux-Arts splendor, Diana has gone missing in what is now a dark, cluttered, windowless study in brown.

The Smithsonian didn't discover any long-lost academic paintings of Greek goddesses when it renovated the museum's Ocean Hall, which reopened Sept. 27. But the results are impressive enough -- the long, rectangular room has been transformed into a bright and colorful space that draws the eye up to its ornate skylight -- that Smithsonian designers should consider doing the same to the Dinosaur Hall, and uncovering "Diana," when it comes up for renovation. The science on display may be 21st century, but there's no reason to be embarrassed by, or to hide, the 19th-century-style buildings that contain it.

The effect at the Ocean Hall is that the exhibits feel like temporary installations, while the architecture is permanent. This contrasts sharply with one of the more powerful trends in museum design today. New museums, especially those constructed to house historical or explanatory displays -- such as the Marine Corps Museum near Quantico or the visitor center at Mount Vernon -- tend to emphasize the horizontal experience of walking through the space, rather than the larger architecture of the building. The museum is a giant structural wrapper around a mazelike warren of objects, videos, wall text and interactive exhibits. You tend to move through these museums rather as a golf ball goes through a miniature golf course: this way, that way, avoid the windmill blades!

It required some serious undoing of past work to bring the Ocean Hall to its current state, which inspires you to look up and around and enjoy the luxury of cathedral-like volumes of space.

At ground level, exhibits are packaged in contemporary glass cases. Above the exhibits, the architecture blossoms. Ornate and beautifully painted molding delineates the lower and upper levels of the more than 50-foot-tall space. Newly uncovered plaster medallions have been refurbished (and serve as screens for projecting a film of underwater life), and doorway-size windows, with ornate metal railings, have been opened up to allow visitors to look into the gallery from the mezzanine level.

Early in its history, what is now the Ocean Hall was divided into smaller rooms. A picture taken around 1911 shows it configured to house the "National Gallery of Art," which was just a wing of pretty pictures within the "National Museum," as the building, designed by Washington architects Hornblower and Marshall, was known. Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was cut up for office space. And in the 1960s, a heavy drop canopy made of pipes (from which lighting was hung) was added, and black paint was slathered over the architectural ornament above it. All of that has been eliminated, details uncovered, walls removed and various mechanical systems deftly hidden.

"It was really meant to be open, and a grand space," says Elizabeth Musteen, who supervises design and construction of the exhibits at the Natural History Museum. And now it is, once again. Musteen says the current thinking views the museum building as an essential "object" in the collection, worth preserving and celebrating, rather than a functional box for teaching science.

Why did designers in the 1960s hide all the architectural detail?

"To make a modern museum," says Musteen. Which often meant covering over architectural richness in favor of a blank canvas of plain walls. This gave exhibit designers more latitude to create contained, theatrical and fully enveloping designs. More recently, the "experiential" museum has taken this anti-architecture of interior design a step further, creating dark and twisting spaces filled with small niches and mini-theaters, all designed to convey information painlessly in bite-size pieces.

Which is a strange way to treat the fruits of the Enlightenment. If you're not dealing with very photosensitive historical objects, the powerful association between light and learning should be retained, not sacrificed to museum designers primarily concerned about video screen brightness. Architecturally, this is a distinction between spaces that inspire vs. spaces that entertain.

Is there a dissonance between the ornate architecture and the state-of-the-art exhibits in the restored Ocean Hall? If there is, it's a productive dissonance. The cases look temporary -- but science is also temporary in the sense that it is always evolving. The exhibits capture the humility of science, but they are set within a ponderous and impressive, even pompous building. Which captures something else essential about science, and is all too often lost today: The importance of the endeavor, the ambition of it, and the paradoxical pride that wisdom takes in its humble method.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company