The best museum exhibits mix delight, education and provocation so subtly that the visitor isn’t aware where one bleeds into another. The National Building Museum’s new long-term display, “House & Home,” explores a subject so wide and so fundamental to American life that it inevitably touches the pleasure buttons of nostalgia.
There are places where one wishes the stress were different, especially the environmental costs of building a society premised on homeownership and low-density population dispersion. But the curators have managed to tell a complicated story clearly and engagingly. And they haven’t neglected complex questions about how race, gender and government policy have affected the physical structures we live in and the sentimental structures that nourish us.
The exhibition has been in the works since 1995. During that long gestation came the great economic crisis of 2008, spurred, in part, by risky mortgage lending, which had a tremendous impact on the housing sector. The curators have taken note of the events, with a timeline that marks a 32 percent jump in foreclosures between April 2008 and April 2009, and the devastation of boomtown developments across the country. A photograph of the Foreclosure Express, a bus that shuttled prospective bargain-hunters around the decimated suburbs of Las Vegas, is a painful late chapter in this more than 200-year odyssey.
The timeline gives the most thorough account of other dark chapters in the real estate industry, from government-sanctioned mortgage policies that made it virtually impossible for many African Americans to obtain mortgages to laws in the early 20th century that prevented Asian immigrants from owning land. And, of course, there was the grand theft of a continent from Native Americans. The lingering effect of two centuries of persistent and systematic racism isn’t just seen in segregated neighborhoods. Last year, the Pew Research Center released a report analyzing government data, which made clear one result of this historical pattern: The median wealth of white households is 20 times greater than that of black households.
Unless you read the timeline thoroughly, however, much of this history will stand apart from the experience of the exhibition, like an unpleasant footnote sequestered in the back of the book.
Using photographs, films and a gallery of small- and large-scale models, the bulk of the exhibition focuses on more feel-good fare. The basic contrast between house and home, between physical shelter and emotional nest, is introduced in the first gallery, where rows of photographs display a wide range of house types and the panoply of life that transpires in the home. Two large dollhouses are included, reminding visitors how early the sense that we must have a traditional home, filled with material goods, is inculcated in us. The more curious of the toy houses was made in the 1970s and features parquet floors, globe lampshades, modular storage and abstract art.
Interspersed with the photographs are quotations that give a good sense of the ambiguities and even ambivalence in how we relate to home and house. Homeownership is equated with prosperity and stability. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,” said William Levitt, the famous real estate developer who gave us Levittown, Pa., a lingering fantasy and nightmare of generic prosperity. But a house is also a burden and can make us isolated monads in a world that needs collective responsibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson made part of that explicit when he wrote: “A man builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life . . .”
The feel-good spirit of the exhibition doesn’t dwell on the deeper ambivalence of family life. Curiously, the curators include a quote from author Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The home is the center and circumference, the start and the finish, of most of our lives.” But in light of her most famous work, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about the imprisoning nature of the home and family life for so many women, that quote feels very different than it does decontextualized on the wall of this exhibition.
The heart of the exhibition, and the source of its pleasure, is a long gallery of finely made house models, full-size mock-ups of basic construction methods and rows of classic household objects. The construction techniques include the stolid minimalism of adobe brick, the rough-hewn carpentry of post and girt (a Colonial practice), and the increasingly light and flexible forms of balloon frame (introduced in the 1830s) and platform frame (the type most often used in new neighborhood developments).
Unfortunately, especially given the basic architecture of Washington, there is nothing that demonstrates local brick construction. More disturbing, nothing is said about the dirty little secret of so much construction over the past half-century: It is shoddy and reaching obsolescence. The exhibition won’t tell you that there is increasing concern that the average life span of the typical new American home could be from 30 to 50 years.
The disposable nature of American society is suggested (although, perhaps, not intentionally) in a long wall of objects typically found in homes over the past 200 years. Including plastic kiddie pools and a Farrah Fawcett poster, the display functions as a jolt to the memory and a test of historical knowledge. It will probably be the high point of the exhibition for families, and with a tortilla press and Islamic prayer rug chockablock with a 1950s cocktail set and 1806 Broadwood piano, it is admirably multicultural in its assemblage. But it’s hard to look at many of the objects that became household necessities in the past half-century — video games, answering machines, Barcaloungers — and not think of our burgeoning landfills.
The exhibition takes note of consumerism in one of a series of short films about basic themes of home and family life. And just when the photographs and images from old magazines and newspapers seem relentlessly and claustrophobically devoted to the standard-issue nuclear family, another series of films shows us Rodney White and Tom Brown, two men living in a beautiful prefabricated house in New York. It is one of six understated but evocative shorts that follow people through a typical day as they inhabit different kinds of living spaces, including an itsy-bitsy Tumbleweed Tiny House that has one room and barely 100 square feet of space.
The film featuring the male couple isn’t idle, token inclusiveness. One of the essential conclusions of this exhibition is how the home we make in our houses is a projection of our American-ness. For immigrant families, it is a place apart and a demonstration of common humanity. Creating a home humanizes us in two essential ways: It makes our life richer and more human, and it makes us seem more human to those around us. Basic metaphors of cultural inclusiveness — “a place at the table” — are derived domesticity. Not surprisingly, the controversy over same-sex marriage is often an argument about the sanctity of the home from two very different perspectives.
By the end of “House & Home,” you may feel some of the basic envy that motivates people who are addicted to home-and-garden shows and snooping around Sunday afternoon open houses. For so many Americans, the home isn’t something inherited, a cultural invariable handed down in some basic form for centuries upon centuries. The home is made, and if you can make it one way, you can make it another. Even if you are happy in your home, there is always someone who might be happier. The home is essential not just in grounding us but in making us restless. For all of its omissions, “House & Home” does a good job of demonstrating how our living space is the first and most fundamental theater for our relentless self-invention.
on long-term display (through May 1, 2017) at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org.