The Arts and Industries Building, Northwest Corner. (Eric Long)

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building has been closed for nearly a decade. The iconic red building, which was originally called the ”National Museum” opened in 1881 — the “lifelong dream” of the Smithsonian’s second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird.

The building, designed by Adolf Cluss, still stands over 132 years later, but has been closed since 2004 for repairs. On Wednesday, the Smithsonian announced that plans are underway for the Arts and Industries Building, located between the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshhorn Museum, to be re-opened and serve as home to a new Innovation Pavilion. The re-opening is currently scheduled for 2014, and only part of the building will be re-opened since a decision has not been made as to whether the remaining space building will be home to the Museum of the American Latino.

The Smithsonian is partnering with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to develop the programs and exhibits that will be featured in the Innovation Pavilion. Prior to the re-opening, the Patent Office will host an Innovation Expo in June to feature patented technologies. The three-day event will, according to a Smithsonian release, “feature a narrative about how the U.S. patent system promotes innovation and technological development.”

The Arts and Industries Building. The Smithsonian announced on Wednesday that the building would be re-opened in 2014 and become home to an Innovation Pavilion. (Smithsonian)

But, today, the debate as to whether patents help or hurt innovation is a robust one, with high-stakes lawsuits being litigated between some of the nation’s largest companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. The suits have led many, particularly within the startup community, to call for patent reform as large companies acquire the patent portfolios of smaller firms.

When the Arts and Industries Building re-opens, it will mean the end of a decade-long construction, involving the installation of custom windows and the uncovering of original paint and plaster on the walls. But it will also present, perhaps, an 18,000-square-foot stage for the debate currently swirling around the nation’s patent system and the question of how the United States will foster the inventions of the future.

Kolawole is the editor of Ideas@Innovations. Follow her on Twitter at @emikolawole.

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