Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Impoverished Official Washington Again Punts Concept Of A Defining National Museum Of American Military History

"The Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center, proposed for a site just north of the Lincoln Memorial, is an idea whose time should never come.

The center was approved in early August by the National Capital Planning Commission, bowing to pressure from Congress, specifically the House. My hope is that it's not too late for the Senate and the Commission of Fine Arts to act sensibly and stop this project, or for the House and the planning commission to reconsider their support.

This visitor center should never get off the ground -- or in this case, be buried underground, because its 25,000 square feet of space and interpretive exhibits are to be entirely subterranean. For a number of reasons, it's fair to ask how the project got this far.

Sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., the project contradicts policies governing new construction on the Mall. To approve it, the National Capital Planning Commission and Congress had to ignore their own Mall development moratorium.

Building this underground visitor center would establish a bad precedent. If an interpretive mini-museum is justifiable for this particular memorial site and this particular war, then why wouldn't every war memorial site also be entitled to a visitor center? Why not build visitor centers for all memorials, no matter what they commemorate?

Recall that the initial program and competition-winning design for the World War II Memorial included 70,000 square feet of visitor information and exhibition space, all to be tucked below the memorial facing 17th Street NW. Fortunately, sensible thinking prevailed and that absurd idea was rejected....

There are limited strategies for entering a subterranean structure from ground level. You can build an on-grade entry pavilion -- the Louvre solution -- containing stairs, elevators and escalators. Or you can gouge out a long, wide, deep swath of earth, creating a rift in the flat landscape to accommodate a ramp gently sloping down to the below-grade level. ...

I also have architectural doubts about the metaphorical aspects of the project. At this site, a structure concealed in the earth, divorced physically and visually from the memorial it seeks to explain, evokes bunker imagery and defensiveness. Vietnam veterans have publicly opposed the project because of the negative connotations associated with such an underground building.

Burying an interpretive visitor center between the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials is neither the right way to educate people about America's Vietnam experience nor the right way to build.

Instead, what Washington needs is a first-rate museum of American military history that comprehensively traces and explains the nation's wars. Using artifacts, photographs, documentary films and written and recorded narratives, such a museum could recount the complex history of America's military involvements. This history should be presented not as independent episodes of war and battle, but rather as part of a historical continuum of world events, politics, culture and geography." ...

Roger K. Lewis "Shaping the City: Underground and Yet So Over the Top" Washington Post September 2, 2006


via National Coalition to Save Our Washington Mall and The National Mall: Third Century Initiative

Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Museum system's National Museum of American History closed yesterday for a two year period of renovation, including installation of a sun-lit central atrium. In one upper floor corner of the museum is a poorly conceived, cramped, and crowded exhibition of over 300 years of American military and defense history.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

"Treasures of American History" at the National Air and Space Museum (opening November 17, 2006)

"Real Treasures of American History" at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, American Art Museum, and the Library of Congress.

Photo credit: Dana Penland and www.magazineusa.com. With thanks.


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