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Visiting the National Building Museum (#1205)

Topics/tags: Reviews

Today I arrived in Washington, DC, for the 2022 CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, or just Tapia 2022, for those who don’t want the mouthful. The conference doesn’t start until Wednesday, so I didn’t need to arrive until Tuesday [1]. But it seemed like a nice excuse to visit DC, so I arrived a day or so early. I had originally planned to meet up with some alums or friends in DC, but my planning sucks [2].

Of course, I was also planning to visit museums. I have some vague memory of an old Dennis the Menace comic in which the Mitchells visit DC and realize that it would take over a year to visit the Smithsonian if they spent a minute at each exhibit. Something like that; I probably got the total length wrong. I tend to visit museums by intution on what feels best,, although I usually visit art musuems. I think I’ll take in the Hirschorn tomorrow and maybe the Renwick; I certainly enjoyed my last visit there [3]. I also recall a great Dada exhibit at the National Gallery; however, that was more than a decade ago. I should probably visit again.

In any case, today I visited the National Building Museum for the first time. Why did I choose that museum? I observed that it’s open Thursday to Monday, so today was the only day I could to visit. And, well, architecture interests me. The NBM is not part of the Smithsonian, so it’s not always free. Fortunately, it was free for me because I’m a member of the Des Moines Art Center, which gives me reciprocal privileges with some other museums.

I started with a short introductory exhibit on the importance of buildings and the built environment. What did they say? Let’s see …

The National Building Museum provides more than an opportunity to explore buildings, their construction, or even their significance. Our subject is the built environment writ large: the broad range for places and spaces people create to support human activity—from simple structures to vast metropolises. That focus includes the individuals, transformative ideas, and technologies that continually reshape the places we inhabit.

After spending a few minutes on structures and materials (I enjoyed discovering that some architects now use cardboard tubes), I wandered off to the temporary exhibits.

First up … The Wall/El Muro. Yup, an exploration of the US/Mexico border, along with some other borders [4]. The whole thing was moving, but what I found most impactful was the collection of notes from visitors. One of the posted questions was what is a border. The answer one person had posted (the handwriting suggests a child): something that keeps people waay from friends and family. Ouch.

Next up … the Gun Violence Memorial Project. Lots and lots of lucite brick-sized memorials from family members who had died from gun violence: people killed by stray bullets, people killed by angry husbands or parents, people killed by themselves, people killed in school shootings, more. It also had videos of people talking about their losses. I had trouble keeping it together.

After that, an exhibit on Notre Dame. And yes, it started with the fire of 2021. I was happy to be reminded that they saved the crown of thorns. We used a tablet for the exhibit, which let us use a host of VR technology. It was interesting for a few minutes. However, when I’m at a museum, I don’t want to stare at a computer screen. I can do that at home.

Does the museum sound depressing to you? It certainly felt a bit that way to me. I thought they should rename it The Museum of Sorrow.

Fortunately, there was more. I appreciated an exhibit on Alan Karchmer, who is known for photographing architecture. They did a nice job of explaining why it can be difficult to photograph architecture and the artistic decisions a photographer makes. Some of the photographs were astounding.

I also enjoyed the exhibit on houre and home, particularly the parts where they showed different mechanisms for building houses across the years. Plus, they had an exhibit called Play, Work, Build where I was able to listen to some kids having fun building with giant foam blocks and to spend a bit of time making my own failed sculptures with smaller foam blocks.

And, like many museums in DC, it’s housed in a great building, the former Pension Building.

Thumbs up! I’d recommend a visit. But bring tissues, at least if you plan to visit The Wall/El Muro and The Gun Violence Memorial Project.

[1] I’m on the Infrastructure Committee, so I’m supposed to be here for a Tuesday night meeting.

[2] I am planning to get together with alums (and current students) on Saturday night

[3] I’d swear that I mused about my Renwick visit. However, I can’t find that musing.

[4] If I recall correctly, the number of physical borders between countries has gone up significantly in the past few decades.

Version 1.0 of 2022-09-05.