Construction-crazy Washington opens its 70th museum today -- the National Building Museum, dedicated to celebrating the nation's building arts and design from architecture to the splendors of turn-of-the-century wrought iron.
Housed in the colossal, century-old Pension Building at Fifth and F streets NW, it is the only museum of its kind in this country and perhaps the inevitable monument for the age of gentrification and giant cranes.
"Americans have been more apt to study the great palaces of Europe than our own architecture," said museum director and architectural historian Bates Lowry. "This museum will try to see to it that at an early stage in their education, Americans know what our important buildings are, and what a record those buildings are of their own society."
The opening of the Building Museum is just the latest milestone in a golden age for Washington's museums, part of a national mania for labeling and exhibition. Due here next are:
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (expected to open by April 1987 at the renovated Masonic Temple building at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW); the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (now under construction just off the Mall); a Museum of the City of Washington (expected to open next fall in the old Rutherford B. Hayes school building at Fifth and K streets NE); and the Smithsonian's Quadrangle project, to open May 1988, which will include the Sackler Gallery for Oriental Art and a new, larger home for the Museum of African Art. The U.S. Army has announced plans for its national museum to be located near the Pentagon, but its funding and construction date are still uncertain.
There have been notable museum expansions as well during the past decade. The National Gallery of Art's East Wing was completed in 1979; the National Air and Space Museum moved into its present site in 1976, averages 10 million visitors annually and claims to be the most-visited museum in the world. The National Collection of Fine Arts was rechristened the National Museum of American Art in 1980 and has more than quadrupled the size of its collection since 1968. The National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall museum is being overhauled in honor of the society's centennial in 1988.
"Museums have been opening at an enormous rate," said Hirshhorn Deputy Director Stephen E. Weil. California, for example, has been opening museums at a rate equal to one a month since 1979. There is a computer museum in Boston, a broadcasting museum in New York, and in Lincoln, Neb., the National Museum of Roller Skating.
The National Building Museum puts Washington just two behind Manhattan in number of museums, according to the Official Museum Directory of the American Association of Museums. And that listing doesn't include the city's lesser-known collections, such as the Bethune Museum and Archives (the nation's largest collection of artifacts of black women leaders), the Volta Bureau (antique hearing aids, ear trumpets and the library of Alexander Graham Bell) and the St. Elizabeths Hospital Museum (relics of Ezra Pound and historical artifacts from the country's first federal mental hospital).
"I don't think anyone knows the square footage," says Lawrence Reger, executive director of the American Association of Museums, "but there is no question that within the last 15 to 20 years Washington has asserted itself as a major cultural center."
New York City, Reger and others said, is still far ahead of Washington in the so-called "alternative spaces," or galleries for avant-garde art, and it is still the capital for finance and theater, but Washington's museum boom has helped transform the city from a cultural backwater to an essential landmark in the nation's cultural landscape.
The capital has held its own in the blockbuster department as well. This summer saw the opening of the Smithsonian's mammoth Festival of India. The National Gallery has mounted mega-exhibitions, from King Tutankhamen to "The Splendors of Dresden" to the upcoming "Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage," which will open here on Nov. 3 for its only U.S. showing.
Experts attribute the museum boom to an assortment of factors, including a better-educated public with more leisure time, the increased showmanship of museum directors and the nation's cultural coming of age.
Building Museum director Lowry suggested that museums may be answering a deeper need. "They have become a place in our society where people go seeking something they don't have -- esthetic satisfaction or education," he said.
Like the National Museum for Women in the Arts, the National Building Museum owes its existence to the personal vision and determination of a small group of people -- architects, architectural historians and lawyers. They believed the nation needed a building museum and the grand old Pension Building needed a purpose.
Like the museums for women's art and for the Holocaust, the Building Museum has depended largely on private funds instead of federal largesse for its operating budget and thus joins Washington museums, music and theater groups in the scramble for corporate money. But that is a tale for the National Museum of Fundraising.