SOMETHING INSIPID is going on at the Arts & Industries Building. Attempting to break new ground in the museum biz, the Smithsonian team has pulled up lame.

The new Experimental Gallery not only isn't innovative, it isn't even up to the Smithsonian's old intellectual and technical standards. The presentations are prosaic, the graphics are ordinary and some of the audiovisuals are hard to see and hear.

The main exhibit celebrates New York City's casitas, little houses built by Puerto Ricans as clubhouses and community centers in the wastelands of the Bronx. Here, we are told, culturally secure people sing and dance, cook traditional dishes and preserve their happy island heritage. It is mentioned in passing that some are mere squatter shacks of the homeless, but not that others serve gangs and dope dealers, degrading rather strengthening the community.

The exhibit's video is half washed out by unscreened light and half drowned out by noise from an adjacent exhibit on airfoils. What can be heard sometimes is vapid: "The casita is more than a public statement of our culture, the casita is our culture." Sometimes it's just silly: At one point, people are shown making drums "exactly as they were {made} in Puerto Rico two centuries ago." This requires us to believe the islanders were using machine-made steel stampings and electro-plated bolts and wrenches while here on the mainland we were still hunched over smoky forges, hammering out metal fittings one by one.

The airfoils exhibit starts off by defining "experimental" as "to test a demonstrated truth." Those who always thought that demonstrated truth was the product of experiment may go stand in the corner. The exhibit itself uses reversed vacuum cleaners to show how an airstream generates lift. Ho-hum, and the hum's painfully loud.

The most attractive and least effective of the three exhibits is "Project Face to Face," which uses plaster life masks and tape recorders in an attempt "to give a face and a voice to people living with AIDS." It does just the opposite, concealing the victims behind impersonal masks and compelling the visitor to listen to their stories in secret.

The white plaster life masks are as expressionless as death masks, showing the shape of the face of the person yet blanking out the person behind it. The recordings, which average about three minutes, are mostly done in dull monotones that give little sense of -- and generate little empathy with -- the doomed speakers. Even the obscenities some of them use seem listless. The separate tragedies are whispered into our ears through individual headphones at widely separated stations. To listen to all the disembodied monologues would take upwards of an hour; most visitors seem to listen halfway through one or two.

What we get is not a challenge to confront AIDS but a way to pretend to confront this scourge of biblical proportions and overtones. While ostensibly putting us one-on-one with unfortunate fellow human beings, the exhibit actually depersonalizes AIDS victims and keeps them at a comfortable distance.

The Experimental Gallery could hardly have been given a more promising setting. Arts & Industries long has been a Smithsonian backwater, with some exhibits dating back more than a century. But the new gallery makes those dusty old cases look good.