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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History celebrates its 50th anniversary with a look back at its past

Fifty years ago, Smithsonian museums didn’t have quite the “wow!” factor they do today.

Artifacts were displayed “willy-nilly,” says Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. “A curator would type on a card and put it by the object,” and that was that.

The National Museum of American History, a museum as forward-looking as America itself, set the stage for widespread change.

From its opening in 1964, to 1980, it was the Museum of History and Technology. The name “was recognition that America rests on the foundations of innovative technology,” says Molella, co-curator of “Making a Modern Museum,” an exhibit celebrating the institution’s 50th anniversary.

We talked to Molella about some of the items in the show, and what “modern” meant in mid-century America.

Undated Rendering of Mall Facade of Museum of History and Technology (above)

When the Museum of History and Technology entered the design stage, one thing was for sure: It had to be modern.

“It was making a symbolic statement for Washington, D.C., and the nation,” Molella says. “We’re a modern nation, we’re coming of age, we’re competing with Russia, we’re tops.”

To complement neoclassical buildings already on the Mall, architect Walker O. Cain blended old and new. The recesses along the facade are abstract versions of columns, for example.

Cain’s rendering shows how the building would look alongside the National Museum of Natural History, with the U.S. Capitol in the distance.

Foucault Pendulum in Motion

The museum’s three-story-high Foucault pendulum was a visitor favorite until its removal in 1998.

“At the Natural History museum you say, ‘Let’s meet at the elephant.’ Well, people always said, ‘Let’s meet at the pendulum,’ ” Molella says.

In this setup, the pendulum appears to be slowly shifting its direction. As the day progresses, the bob knocks down pegs arranged in a circle below it. (In the photo above, the bob is a blur of motion.) But the pendulum isn’t changing its path. What moves is the earth beneath.

The pendulum’s 250-pound bob has emerged from retirement for the museum’s 50th anniversary.

Van de Graaff Particle Accelerator

This bulbous specimen, from the early 1930s, was part of a 1977 exhibit called “Atom Smashers.” Accelerators speed up subatomic particles; put another particle in the way and a hit breaks it into even smaller particles. The Van de Graaff model, about 30 feet tall, “represented scientific progress: big science, a great big instrument, expensive, and people were dwarfed by it,” Molella says. The real thing’s in storage, but this photo is on view.

Modernized Gowns of the First Ladies Exhibition

The first exhibit installed in the Museum of History and Technology is still its star: the first ladies’ gowns.

When the collection crossed the Mall from the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, it was already an example of cutting-edge exhibit design. Curators in the 1950s, inspired by trade shows and worlds’ fairs, put the gowns on lifelike mannequins and arranged them in a dramatic setting. (This photo, on view in “Making a Modern Museum,” shows the gallery after its modernization.)

In embracing this contemporary look, “the museum was putting a flag in the ground that we’re going to be modernizing,” Molella says. The first ladies gallery set a high bar: Visitors should be wowed. “We were leading the way,” Molella says.

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