Ladies First at the Smithsonian

In Museums on May 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Finally dipped my toe into the heritage pool of Smithsonia! Yay! Well, half a toe. Was meeting an old friend from home, so I had only time to visit one half of the National Museum of American history, but what a half it was!

The west side of the NMAH was the side I chose, and until I see the east, it’s my favourite. It includes popular culture and well as some “proper” history, but we’ll start with the proper stuff. I found a lot of the exhibits kind of dry – for example, the “Changing Communities” thing was a bit stale. Lots of glass cases and artefacts in boxes – it didn’t really come to life. But, there was one exhibit that really did – “Within these Walls”

A relocated house that is part furnished, part walled, and it tells the stories of 200 years worth of occupants. It’s in one big room, and you walk around (as opposed to through) the house, peeking in windows and peering over beams to see what’s inside. Behind you will be a display of objects related to the room you’re looking at, and a bit more information about the period in history it covers. I really liked this – it was a very nice way to take visitors through a very large chunk of American History in a very human way. Now, on to the Pop!

Quite literally, because there is a popular culture section. Here it is:

That’s kind of it. The wall, and the small room you can see behind it. It’s cool, but it’s lazy. You could argue that you’re letting the objects do the talking, but I would yawn and stop listening to you if you did. Don’t tell me there isn’t more you can do with a plain black hat that Michael Jackson once wore than put it in a case (with the very helpful label, “Michael Jackson’s Hat”. Genius). Just in case you museum bods are wondering what these kids are all so excited about in a museum, I’m afraid it’s a one of a kind. Well, two.

Again, rivetting label there, Smithsonian…

However, all is not lost. There was one popular culture exhibit I did LOVE – it straddles the breach between history and pop, actually, but David Starkey would definitely turn his nose up at it and say it isn’t proper history. Therefore I judge it to be excellent.

The Smithsonian has an item of clothing from every single First Lady and then some – they go all the way back to 3ft tall Martha Washington (which suggested to me a possible reason for the diminuitive stature of the White House), and the current star of the show, Michelle Obama’s inaugural ball gown by Jason Wu:

Apart from the obvious buzz you get from seeing dresses you have seen on TV (or seen AT ALL, in my case. I do love a good frock show), there’s a really interesting (although completely logical) detail to this gallery. All the dresses sit on tailor-made models, to the exact measurements of the first lady who wore the dress. Sounds mundane and pointless, but rather than showing the dresses in a catwalk-like perfection on a size 6 mannequin, you get a feel for the size of the ladies who wore them – as I mentioned, Mary Washinton and her close contemporaries were miniscule. Michelle Obama of the perfect arms is actually fairly broad, but tall enough to carry it off. Nancy Reagan is pixie-like and looks really fragile, but you wouldn’t want to meet Barbara Bush down a dark alley at night. One other bizarre thing I found out from the collection of inaugural ball gowns on display – guess who wore my favourite inaugural ball gown?! It was the scariest, least fashion-concious, most formidable first lady of all…

There was a lot in this side of the museum that didn’t capture me at all, like the communities display, and the science/innovation bit (apart from a few harrowing pictures of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs). I usually like the sciencey bits when they bring then down to my level as well – that was disappointing. Also, there was Julia Child’s kitchen – I only know who she is  because of the film Julie and Julia, but I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup. That’s nobody’s fault, especially as this is the American History museum – there is bound to be stuff in it that foreigners don’t identify with, and so you’ll probably never get them intreagued.

Overall, it was pretty cool. As you can tell, I adored the First Ladies, and I liked a few other bits and bobs as well. There are some exhibits that could really do with a refresh, but isn’t that the way at most museums? I suppose I am guilty of holding the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian to a higher standard, just because they’re the big dawgs. Still – looking forward to the east side some time this week! One last thing though – I can’t abide sloppy corner-cutting, especially in such a well-oiled machine of a museum as this. OI! SMITHSONIAN! Sort your signage out!

  1. Small but clever touch of having dresses displayed at their actual size. Enjoying these blog posts!

  2. Ah, brings back so many memories, although it stopped at Nancy Reagan when I was there. I remember Barbara ‘He-man’ Bush too! Loving this Laura xxx

  3. “The scariest, least fashion conscious most formidable First Lady of them all…..” Eleanor Roosevelt might have something to say about that. Hillary can do style. I still have my Hillary 08 badge, and mighty elegant it looks too.

    I can only imagine how you shivered coming face to face with *the* ruby slippers. The labelling is rather understated (to put it mildly), but then the British Museum are masters at that too. It must be something to do with glass cases that sucks all the imagination and flair out of exhibition designers and curators.

    Wonderful blog, but be careful about the David Starkey bashing. He sees and hears all.

  4. […] bad museum nerd! This had to change. So, I moved systematically on to the next door neighbour of NMAM, the Museum of Natural History. Now, I have mentioned my hatred for glass case museums on several […]

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