The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stop building museums on the National Mall

Women and Latinos deserve better than getting squeezed into the unsuitable locations proposed by the Smithsonian

An aerial view of the Washington Monument on the National Mall shows the sites the Smithsonian would like to use for its two new museums. Both spots are in the center right of the image and would add to the urban density encroaching on the Mall. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

The Smithsonian Board of Regents has a once-in-a-century chance to build two essential new museums while remaking the symbolic landscape of Washington. They seem intent on squandering that opportunity.

The regents late last month announced their preferred sites for the future National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum, both authorized by Congress in 2020. The plots chosen — one on the south side of the National Mall near the Washington Monument, the other on a roughly triangular plot close to the Tidal Basin — were selected from a list of four, winnowed down from a longer list of 15 preferred or “Tier I” possibilities. Congress must now approve the selections — and it should decline to do so.

Smithsonian zeroes in on prime Mall spots for Latino and women’s museums

Both spots — the “South Monument site” and the “Tidal Basin site” — are extremely problematic, would lead to unnecessary expense, and would force architectural and design compromises that would diminish the potential beauty and functionality of the buildings. The people of the United States, including women and Latinos whose history will be represented in these spaces, deserve better.

Both sites also fall within a “no build zone” established by Congress almost 20 years ago to preserve the beauty, openness and grandeur of the Mall and to prevent it from becoming urbanized and overbuilt. To go forward with the Tidal Basin site would require Congress to overrule its own better judgment, while building on the South Monument site would also force much of the building to go underground, and would compromise views of the Washington Monument.

The preferred locations would set a destructive precedent for future museums, including the proposed National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture and the National Museum of American LGBTQ+ History and Culture (the former under study, the latter gaining traction in Congress). As competition for dwindling space on and near the Mall grows more intense, Congress will be forced to prioritize one group over another, which will create resentment and division as some are inevitably excluded from “on the Mall” sites. Congress is also likely to be coerced into making destructive exceptions to the laws, plans and regulations that have preserved the city’s aesthetic and the Mall’s integrity for more than a century, eventually destroying the long vista that stretches from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

Yet the Smithsonian has dismissed the legal, pragmatic and historical impediments to building on these parcels. Why?

Symbolism. A brief survey of the oversight process, including hearings by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, suggests that the Smithsonian’s overriding concern was to be on the Mall, or as close to it as possible. That’s understandable, given the emotional significance of the nation’s monumental greensward. To be on the Mall is to be at the table, in the family, fully American. It is a space that affords equal dignity to African Americans and Native Americans, and veterans of wars both popular and divisive.

Yet that symbolism is tired, and it doesn’t encompass the reality of the Mall, its past and its future. As America’s sense of history has evolved from a single narrative of White, patriarchal, European-derived culture to a richer, more complicated and more interesting multiplicity of narratives, the need for more museums has become acute. (There are still debates about whether this trend to identity-based history is destructive, but the success of institutions such as National Museum of African American History and Culture should allay those concerns.) The space on the Mall, however, remains finite. Since the 2016 completion of the African American Museum, open space is limited to a handful of parcels, and none are suitable for the hundreds of thousands of square feet required for a modern museum.

Nat’l Museum

of African

American

History and

Culture

Nat’l Museum

of American

History

Ellipse

Washington

Monument

Selected

locations

National Mall

U.S. Holocaust

Memorial

Museum

U.S. Dept. of

Agriculture

Nat’l

Museum

of Asian

Art

500 FEET

THE WASHINGTON POST

Ellipse

Nat’l Museum

of African

American

History and

Culture

Nat’l Museum

of American

History

Washington

Monument

Selected

locations

National Mall

Smithsonian

Castle

U.S. Holocaust

Memorial

Museum

U.S. Dept. of

Agriculture

Nat’l

Museum

of Asian

Art

500 FEET

THE WASHINGTON POST

Ellipse

Nat’l Museum

of African

American

History and

Culture

Nat’l Museum

of American

History

Nat’l Museum

of Natural

History

Washington

Monument

Selected

locations

National Mall

Tidal Basin

Smithsonian

Castle

Jefferson

Memorial

U.S. Holocaust

Memorial

Museum

U.S. Dept. of

Agriculture

Nat’l

Museum

of Asian

Art

Nat’l

Museum

of African

Art

500 FEET

THE WASHINGTON POST

Meanwhile, tectonic shifts in how Americans work have created an unprecedented chance to extend the boundaries of the Mall and the greatest opportunity to remake the symbolic core of Washington since the McMillan Plan of 1902. That effort, which used architecture and landscape design to dramatize the nation’s imperial ambitions, transformed a patchwork of gardens, mud flats and accumulated urban clutter into the open vista beloved today.

But the current revolution of telework, accelerated by the covid pandemic, is changing how much space the federal government needs. The Mall, hemmed in by office buildings, could become more porous and grow, especially to the south of Independence Avenue, where the Eisenhower Memorial has already extended the memorial landscape opposite the National Air and Space Museum.

Among the structures that might be eliminated is the Forrestal Building, home to the Department of Energy. Its mid-century brutalism has a certain dour charm, but it sits elevated on columns straddling 10th Street. That not only blocks views of the Smithsonian Castle to the north, but also deters pedestrian traffic along what could be an open, inviting corridor linking the Mall to the newly developed, bustling Wharf and Waterfront neighborhoods in Southwest Washington. The Washington Channel waterfront (and its amenities, including restaurants) is a shorter walk from the Castle than from the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial — if tourists know it exists and are invited by urban cues to go there.

Remove the Forrestal campus and you could extend the Mall to the south, making room for several museums on the Forrestal site and other plots now linked to the monumental core. Building on the cramped South Monument site (which is substantially smaller than the equivalent site occupied by the African American Museum) would result in a tortured aboveground structure, a mere appendage to a vast basement below the water table. Although the Smithsonian says the site can accommodate a building without violating the rules of the McMillan Plan, it is likely that museum officials and architects would want an exception to the historic building setback line, allowing the structure to encroach on the Mall’s central axis.

Building on the Tidal Basin site would destroy the organic connection of the Mall to the city’s beloved cherry trees and the Jefferson Memorial, impede traffic and endanger pedestrians. No one has seriously proposed developing this site in recent memory and perhaps not since the city plan was laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, and for good reason.

The Forrestal site would allow architects to create imposing, impressive, worthy structures, with plenty of light and open space, surrounded by greenery and directly connected to the Smithsonian’s 1855 Castle, the oldest cultural structure on the Mall. The new museums would actually feel more central to the architectural and symbolic narrative of the Mall — and the nation — than they would on the proposed sites (one of which, the Tidal Basin plot, isn’t technically “on the Mall” at all).

The Forrestal Building is owned by the General Services Administration, which has encouraged new thinking about the 10th Street corridor. In an emailed statement, a GSA spokeswoman would only say that the Forrestal Building is currently “occupied” by a federal agency. But in a Sept. 28 letter to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, GSA administrator Robin Carnahan wrote that “there may be new opportunities within the Federal real estate portfolio as agencies continue planning their future of work.”

Carnahan’s letter encouraged the Smithsonian to look beyond the supposedly open or vacant sites it is so determined to develop. A Sept. 14 letter from Billie Tsien, chairwoman of the fine arts commission and a brilliant and distinguished architect, explicitly encouraged the Smithsonian to consider the Forrestal site. Yet another letter sent during the review process, from National Capital Planning Commission Chairwoman Beth White, echoed those concerns and recommendations. The best designers, planners and urban thinkers involved in this process are strongly opposed to the Smithsonian’s shortsighted choice of two ill-advised and ill-suited locations.

The Smithsonian disagrees with their analysis. Ronald Cortez, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for administration, said the review process was rigorous and included a detailed assessment of the probable costs and delays for 27 sites. Moving the offices and federal employees at the Forrestal Building could cost $1.4 billion, Cortez said, and could lead to delays of seven to 10 years. He also stressed that the sites preferred by the Smithsonian would create synergies with the African American Museum and its neighbor, the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian acknowledges that it would not be “on the hook” for covering the cost of relocating Department of Energy employees. Congressional intervention and GSA cooperation could limit delays. And the Forrestal site would have affinities and synergies as strong as any on the Mall, connecting the new museums to the Smithsonian’s main campus, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian museums devoted to African and Asian art.

It isn’t easy to oppose the old, reflexive “on the Mall” thinking because it invites accusations of being hostile to the purpose and content of a new museum or memorial, and the dignity they are meant to convey. If the African American Museum is on the Mall, then why not the Latino museum? If men overwhelmingly dominate the symbolism of the Mall, is there no room for women?

But this kind of thinking is predicated on the idea that the Mall as defined more than a century ago by a coterie of White men is the only symbolically significant location for a museum or memorial. It is a zero-sum mentality that creates division, the sort of division that impedes the progress not just of marginalized groups, but also a truly cohesive, multicultural and equitable society. Fighting over the last shards of an imperial, heroic, male-centered landscape makes no sense, when there is an unprecedented opportunity to recast the boundaries, the focus and the meaning of that land. On the Mall is tired; extend the Mall is wired.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that GSA employees work in the Forrestal Building. That building houses Department of Energy employees. The article has been corrected.

Loading...