The Big Marble Shrine is 50 years old this year! For those unfamiliar with this nickname, like I was, I’m referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Previously named Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology (MHT), it was the first modern building on the Mall. During the museum’s design, it was determined that they wanted to create an edifice that would flow with the classical setting of the Mall. The front walls were designed specifically to evoke the feeling of classical Greek columns. Originally, architect Eero Saarinen was suggested as a possible option to use but he ultimately was not selected given his perceived “utter disregard for orthodoxy.”
Courtesy of Avery Library, Columbia University
I learned a lot about the history of this museum before I even read the various labels associated with the objects on display. There were so many cool old pictures of the museum and past museum patrons that not only showed the building in various stages but also older ways of displaying objects. This was the first American museum that used innovative ways to stage exhibitions. Instead of just placing every single item in a glass case, the curators would design exhibits around themes and attempt to create a “flow” within the exhibit. They even have the congressional legislation that created the museum!
Loan from National Archives and Records Administration
While this exhibit is not very large, it is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself at the National Museum of American History. It really gave me a new appreciation of how to look at exhibits and an appreciation for curators especially those from across the Smithsonian. Imagine walking into the Natural History Museum and just seeing everything they have without some sort of organization. A dinosaur fossil next to information about the human genome next to rare bugs would make a visit seem confusing and overwhelming. The National Museum of American History really pioneered exhibiting items the way we see them today. For a behind the scenes video of creating this exhibit click here.