Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

Expandmenu Shrunk

Saving the First Smithsonian Museum

Exterior shot of Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building
Exterior shot of Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building

Anyone who has visited the National Mall in Washington DC has probably enjoyed one or more of the museums that line the perimeter.  There are museums of Art, American History, Natural History, Air and Space technology, Botanical Gardens and more.  The Smithsonian Institution plays a critical role here, and appropriately enough the Smithsonian Castle, a beautiful red sandstone Late-Victorian building sits in the middle of it all.  Right next door is another beautiful building of red and multicolor brick, the younger sister of the Castle which has, tragically, been almost forgotten by visitors – blocked off on all sides by construction fences.  This is the Arts & Industries Building, and it needs our help.

Many people don’t realize that this was the very first Smithsonian museum, completed in 1881 and originally called the National Museum.  The Castle was built to house offices, provide a residence for the Director, and to host events.  A history of the building can be found at  Over the years, the Castle has been used as exhibition state, and ironically, the Arts and Industries Building was most recently (since the 1980s) used for office space.



My recollection of visiting the building as a child was that this was a very cool place.  It was housing an exhibit of artifacts from the Industrial Revolution, similar to those first housed there from the Centennial Celebration.  Nowadays, though, museums typically have to be climate controlled, the the A&IB, with its large, light-filled and naturally ventilated interiors was not a good candidate for air-conditioning to museum standards.  Instead, they decided to seal the galleries off and air-condition them for use as offices.  This retrofit, along with a botched roofing renovation in the 1980s, created conditions that promoted mold growth.  It is amazing how little we seemed to understand about building technology in the 80s.  In 2004, the building was closed for health reasons.  This threw a wrench into the budget works and it took several years to raise the money and start the remediation work.

They have recently completed the task of stabilizing the bones and skin of the building.  Here are some photos of what it looks like inside now.




In order to reopen, the interiors have to be renovated and restored.  Check with the Smithsonian to see how you can help open this beautiful building the public again.

Once it IS ready to open, the question will be what to do with it.  The structure of the building, including an innovative double brick skin designed to enhance natural ventilation*, makes it nearly impossible to condition the space to museum standards.  My own feeling is that this building should serve as a showcase for the best of new technology and new ideas.  Such exhibits should not require special environmental conditions, and they should also rotate every few years as new technologies come on-line.  The museum would give visitors a glimpse into the near future (10-20 years out).  This mission would echo its original function, but this time it can help herald the dawn of the Green Age (where we figure out how NOT to poison ourselves to death), the New Space Age  (the private commercialization of space), the Anthropocene Age (where humans have reshaped nature), etc..  There are so many exciting NEW things to see and experience, and this building, with its wonderful natural daylight, is a perfect place to do that.  It would be a crime to turn it back into offices.