A Nation on Display
Feasting on the interpretive layer of the capitol region

1092 Ornate touchscreen kiosks at the Information Center for the Smithsonian Institution, located inside the Castle, on the Mall. CLUI photo
ONE CURIOUS ASPECT OF A visit to the capitol is the sense that one is not a tourist, visiting a strange city, but rather a citizen, reporting for duty, to upload the official version of America, represented through a dizzying array of displays. Like the buffet table at an inaugural ball, the nation is served up - for free, no less - in a variety of dishes and confections. Some are bite-sized and some are meaty. There’s the largest museum in the country, with its great themed halls, spanning the architectural  spectrum from neoclassical to I. M. Pei, and there are carefully crafted little exhibits installed in lobbies and visitor’s centers of government entities, private institutions, and politically-minded commercial organizations. Together, the displays of the Capitol region provide an interpretive  feast for the visitor, and something to chew on long after returning to the nation’s landscape.
Most museum-going visitors to DC begin at the museum of America, the Smithsonian Institution, with its dozen display centers in the Capitol. At the Castle, the headquarters of the institution, museum-goers will find a visitor center, a sort of virtual museum-for-the-Museum, with touchscreen kiosks that provide an orientation to the museum’s various locations, an information desk, and main offices upstairs. Little remains visible from the days when the Castle housed the entire collection of the Smithsonian, when its exhibit halls were a jumble of natural history displays, terrariums, and curious artifacts, while upstairs, apartments housed the museum’s director and visiting scientists. The institution’s original benefactor, James Smithson, never set foot in America, until he had both of them in his grave. His tomb is on the grounds of the Castle.

1093 A photograph in the vestibule of the Castle shows how that very section of the original museum used to look, with terrariums, vitrines, framed pictures, and specimens. On the wall in the image is a peacock feather fan. Above the image is the same fan, in the same place, a relic from the days when the Smithsonian was a cabinet of natural history curiosities. CLUI photo
From this symbolic museum and tomb complex, visitors to the Smithsonian can fan out to the themed exhibition center of their choice. Close-by, the Arts and Industries Building was the first addition to what would become the continuously expanding Smithsonian. It is a Victorian exhibition hall that contains rotating exhibits on a wide range of subjects (boxing and Margaret Mead were recently portrayed in separate exhibits) and features a model train set circling a miniature Smithsonian Castle. When this building opened, in 1881, it was called the National Museum Building. It was renamed when the natural history displays were  extracted, and moved across the Mall, in 1910, into the new National Museum of Natural History.

In 1964, the Smithsonian’s 750,000 square foot National Museum of History and Technology opened next to the Natural History Museum. This museum is a modernist monolith that was among the last structures designed by McKim, Mead and White. It broke with the neoclassical and Victorian fashion favored by the builders of Important Buildings in Washington. Though its name has changed to the National Museum of American History, exhibits on technology dominate the basement level of the museum, covering the early railways, civil engineering, the Bomb, the SAGE system, computers, the internet, and even Fresh Kills landfill, as interpreted by garbologist Bill Rathje, in an entertaining touchscreen display.

The 1970s saw two new Smithsonian museums on the Mall, the nation’s modern and contemporary  art museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park, and the Air and Space Museum, conceived to display aircraft after World War Two, but not built until 1976. Displays in the Air and Space museum are battle-ready, for the throngs of school kids that course through the cavernous interior. Though full-sized aircraft, space capsules, and satellites are featured, the museum is building a new, 760,000 square foot facility at Dulles airport, scheduled to open in late 2003 where, among 200 other aircraft, the Enola Gay will be able to be displayed whole, instead of in pieces as it was originally displayed in a controversial exhibit in 1995 at the Air and Space Museum. In the meantime, the Enola Gay is kept at the Institution’s Garber facility in Suitland, Maryland, a town just outside DC which, as the home of several vast Smithsonian curatorial complexes as well as possibly the largest federal records archive, can claim to have more storage space than nearly any other place in America.

1094 The attic for "America’s Attic," incidentally, is just outside Washington DC in Suitland Maryland, where the Smithsonian operates a number of curatorial, reseach, and storage facilities, including the Museum support Center, where rows of metal sheds contain acres of storage for the museum. CLUI photo
Off the Mall, the National Building Museum is a truly remarkable structure and display center, unrelated to the Smithsonian. The Victorian pavilion, built originally as an office building in 1882, features a grand interior hall, nearly 15 stories tall, with two levels of exhibit halls off balconied hallways. The focus of the museum, founded in 1985, is American architecture, urban planning, construction, engineering, and design. Among the more than a hundred exhibits it has presented over the years are such classics as Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America, On the Job: Design and the American Office, World War Two and the American Dream, and an exhibit about the Bechtel Corporation, which had a purity of perspective sometimes lacking from public museum exhibits, as it was mostly funded by the Bechtel Corporation.

Despite the National Building Museum’s erroneous claim of being "the only cultural institution in the country exclusively dedicated to presenting exhibitions and public programs about America’s built environment," they certainly do stand tall in the interpretive arena of America.

1095 The wondrous Great Hall of the National Building Museum is sometimes used for presidential inaugural balls. The eight Corinthian columns are among the largest interior columns in the world. CLUI photo
The National Geographic Society headquarters is another must see interpretive site in the nation’s capitol. The ground floors of the two office buildings occupied by the Society are open to the public, and contain lecture halls, where several times a month, the Society’s roster of modern-day explorers and adventurers return from the field to present their findings and relate their experiences. There are also numerous display areas, as is befitting the "world’s largest non-profit educational organization." The Explorers Hall, the "window into the adventurous world of National Geographic," is the principal display area, and is a highly designed, immersive exhibit space, with some of the most state-of-the-art interactive museum displays to be found in the Capitol district. The colorful, wide-angle photography that is the hallmark of the organization’s magazine, is splashed all over the place, as floor-to-ceiling wall prints, formal, framed pictures, and everything in between. Display cases show artifacts and specimens from the field, such as the backpack, shorts, and broken sandals worn by Michael Fay, on his recent 2,000 mile walk across Africa, part of the "Megatransect: Trek Across Africa" exhibit.

1097 Among the things to do at the National Geographic is to have an image of your head superimposed on a selection of backdrops that are like National Geographic Magazine covers. CLUI photo
Also on the ground floor of the Society is a television studio, with windows overlooking the street. It is used to record host segments, anchor commentary, and interviews for the National Geographic television channel, which broadcasts nationwide via cable, and locally by playing on plasma screens and loudspeakers facing the sidewalk.

The Federal region, of course, extends beyond the limits of the District of Columbia, into the DC suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, where visitors will continue to find unusually instructive, entertaining, and superlative display venues of national import.

1100 Rhetorical questions abound at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. CLUI photo
What must be the most elaborate and startling wildlife refuge visitor center in the country can be found at the Patuxent Research Refuge, a 13,000 acre woodland north of DC, and the largest natural area in close proximity to the city. Patuxent was the nation’s first major wildlife research station, established in the 1930’s (adjacent to the larger National Agricultural Research Center), and it has a history of research on bird migration and waterfowl habitat. The refuge more than doubled in size in the 1990’s as it absorbed some of the NSA’s Fort Meade, including several firing ranges still in use today. With the institutionalization of basic environmental principles in the 1970’s, educational outreach became part of the mission of the Center, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the facilities at Patuxent, began planning a  "National Wildlife Visitor Center" to reflect their programs, and as an attraction to draw the public away from the restricted areas of the refuge’s lands. The largest science and environmental education center in the Department of the Interior finally opened in 1994, though much of the alarmist environmental urgency of the 1970’s remains intact in the displays.

The visitor center is a labyrinth of highly designed display spaces, which create  an atmosphere of immediate environmental doom amid a haunted  and fleeting natural world. After a large, bright lobby area, visitors enter into the first darkened room and are assaulted by several kinetic displays with flashing rear screen projections, backlit image panels, and scrolling LED text displays warning of overpopulation, depletion of resources, starvation, contamination, land exploitation, and pollution, amid frantic sounds of machines grinding away at the earth. Unanswered questions leap out of the displays: "What is Happening to Our Wetlands?" "What is Happening to Our Oceans?" "How do We Feed the World?"

1099 Some mysteries are explained at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. CLUI photo
This initial chamber of horrors sets the tone for the rest of the displays, which describe environmental research programs by depicting  field scientists with probes, headphones, and telemetry equipment, and celebrate the majesty and mystery of nature through darkened hallways with lurking surreal vitrines that resemble cryogenic alien freezers. Numerous touchscreen consoles are set up in command and control center-like rooms within rooms, and sounds of howling wolves and panicked birds fills the air. Near the exit, an immersive kaleidescoped video display swirls phantasmagorically, presenting the option of two futures (like the Theater of Time at the Luxor Casino): environmental holocaust, or  Arcadian paradise. You decide.

Next to the refuge is the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, a sprawling, 7,000 acre research farm with fields, woodlands, and numerous laboratory complexes. With additional off-site offices and programs in other states, BARC claims to be the largest and most diversified agricultural research complex in the world, conducting research into large-scale farming practices including beef, pig, and poultry raising, pesticides, nutrition, and other programs of interest to the American agricultural industry. An on-site visitor center explains some of what they do through image, text, and artifact displays, with titles such as "Integrated Pest Management," "Fungi in our Lives," and "Soy!"

1101 The Agricultural Research Center’s visitor center uses a simple static panel display method, with text and image panels and artifacts, in a cozy building that is a historic log structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. CLUI photo
The National Air and Space Administration operates visitor centers at most of its major production and R&D sites. In Greenbelt, Maryland, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the visitor center overlooks the multifaceted industrial complex from the edge of the restricted area. The Goddard Center was the first major NASA R&D site devoted to space exploration, and was built immediately following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik. Today around 7,000 people continue to work  there, on projects primarily related to satellite and earth observation systems. The four largest contractors at Goddard are the defense and satellite companies Lockheed, Raytheon, TRW, and Hughes. Goddard also operates the Wallops Island launch and test complex on the coast of Virginia.

1102 At the Goddard Visitor Center, Commodore computers with bright red joysticks are encased in formica consoles, set up like an elementary school version of Mission Control. CLUI photo
It is hard to get a sense of the exceedingly high-tech activities at the lab from the displays in the visitor center, which are sadly primitive and antiquated (computer displays and interfaces resemble a video arcade circa 1988). But the capacious visitor center does convey a poetic sense of the vacuuity of space, punctuated by lonely, spinning tools.

It is no coincidence that not too far from NASA in Greenbelt is the headquarters for the National Security Agency (NSA), an organization that employs at least 20,000 people in the daunting task of intercepting, decoding, and classifying communications all over the world for the American intelligence community. While no public visitation facilities exist in either of the two main office buildings, an official NSA museum, called the National Cryptologic Museum, is located nearby at the edge of Fort Meade.

1103 Inside the NSA’s museum. CLUI photo
The museum represents an interesting display dichotomy: a display site built by an organization that would rather no one knew it existed, that describes the operations of the organization, operations that are, however, secret, and are, paradoxically, about revealing secrets. The NSA has partially addressed this problem by dwelling on well known historical elements of its story, such as the cracking of World War Two codes with the Enigma machine, which is prominently featured in the museum, with many other historic analog code-breaking instruments that look like alien typewriters.

The museum does have a number of more contemporary displays, such as a finger print analyzing computer that visitors can rate the "quality" of their prints on, and several computer and supercomputer systems that, with little explanation of how they were used, are beautifully enigmatic icons of the age of information and intelligence. For example, a computer called the CM-5 is an elegant bathroom-sized machine clad in horizontal and vertical metal fins, like a giant architectural model of a modernist skyscraper. There is an array of flickering rack-mounted components called the Rissman Telemetry Processing System, that has a satisfying assortment of milspec switches. A Cray XMP-24 supercomputer (the kind with the built-in padded bench around its base), looks like a Stanley Kubrick film prop, but is labeled as having been in use at NSA circa 1985-1993. And a Ziegler supercomputer machine (called "Barney" by its handlers, because it was big and purple), which weighs several tons, was cooled by a 60 ton refrigeration unit (all to process 32 gigabytes), and is labeled as having been in use at the NSA from 1993 to 2000.

The museum is a fascinating place in itself, as well as for what it represents. Docents are eager to show visitors around, and photographs are permitted everywhere except in the gift shop where the clerk says, without any sense of irony, that it is against her religion to be photographed.

With the general trend for exhibit centers and museums to integrate more interactive computer and video-based displays, it is perhaps with an eye on things to come that one would take a look at the Newseum in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from the Capitol. This "museum of news" was opened in an existing office building in 1997. The $50 million display environment, created by the designer of the Holocaust Museum, is about as high-tech as it comes. Interactive touchscreens abound, as do video projections, and plasma screens. The introductory film "What is News" is shown on the region’s largest high definition video screen. Video news feeds come in from all over the world, and are routed to screens via the museum’s central control room, which itself looks like a broadcast booth. Downstairs, have a snack in the NewsByte Cafe, while logging on to Lexis-Nexis through a highspeed internet connection.

The Newseum celebrates the first amendment, and the importance of journalism to the cause of freedom. It was built and is operated by the Freedom Forum, which itself is headed by the founder of USA Today, and the former CEO of its parent company Gannett (which owns about 90 other newspapers across the country). Based on its popularity in the first four years of its existence, the museum will soon be relocating to a new building in Washington DC. When it opens there, sometime in 2005, this "museum of the moment" will no doubt be even fancier, ushering in a new era of interconnected display technology, and providing a museumified version of the current events that are shaped by the forces of commerce and government, centered in this city of display.

1104 At the Newseum, a wall of 70 front pages from newspapers around the world are updated daily, while above, the 125 foot long Video News Wall has nine newscasts going at once. CLUI photo