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Science in Museums: Art and Science Collide at the National Building Museum

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on August 21, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice

My summer internship in Washington, D.C., has given me a great opportunity to explore a lot of new (to me) museums. This weekend, I checked out the National Building Museum, established by Act of Congress in 1980 and located in the historic 1887 Pension Bureau building in downtown Washington. The building itself is definitely befitting of a museum of architecture and city planning: the outside is an impressive red brick façade with a wraparound frieze depicting various military units, while the inside is a cavernous space supported by eight huge Corinthian columns. Multiple Presidents have held their inauguration balls inside the building, and it is regularly used for political events.

The museum’s only permanent exhibition is a hands-on learning center aimed at children ages 2-6; the rest of the exhibitions are temporary and reflect a number of issues related to architecture and city planning. What I really enjoyed in these exhibits was the wide number of points of entry for different audiences: the museum’s content encompasses architecture, structural engineering, and urban populations. In doing so, it effortlessly bridges art, science, and human interests in a way that supports and enhances all three topics. I’m a firm believer that studying relationships between art and science strengthens both of these topics: by learning the composition of the paints George Braque used, one can understand what it took the artist to reach a certain level of texture and color in his work; learning to illustrate and look deeply at a specimen can give a richer understanding of botany.

I was particularly struck by Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces, a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture. The exhibit covers the career of Rafael Gustavino, a Spanish immigrant to the U.S. who had a huge influence on American architecture in the late 19th century. During a time when urban expansion was booming, city planners realized the need for larger buildings to house vast libraries, museums, train stations, and other gathering places for large numbers of people. Gustavino introduced to America a Spanish method of mortaring bricks into a “vault,” a dome surrounded by a series of arches. This method allowed builders to support huge amounts of weight using very few bricks, as the weight of the ceiling was transferred to the arches. The additive effect of the force-distribution system is so strong that when one building containing a Gustavino vault was torn down, the vault was almost impossible to shatter, and it came apart in huge chunks rather than individual bricks. The method is also much faster than traditional methods of construction – the Gustavino vaults of the Boston Public Library, built to withstand the weight of tons of books, were erected in a matter of weeks. These vaults also allow for another important function: the domes lend themselves well to decoration with colorful glass tiles, bringing elaborate decorative arts to spaces for common people.

Gustavino vaults should be familiar to enthusiasts of museums – I was surprised to learn that I work underneath one of Gustavino’s most famous vaults every day, the glass-tiled rotunda in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History! His work also adorns and supports huge vaulted ceilings in a variety of public spaces, train stations, and churches, including the Nebraska State House, the historic City Hall Station in New York’s subway, and the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. This last vault is so huge, engineers didn’t believe it would work. They would come to watch its construction every day and took bets on when it would collapse – a century later, they’ve all lost their bets!

The exhibit also includes a replica of a Gustavino vault made by MIT researchers (the first vault built in America in over 50 years; the technique has largely been replaced by reinforced concrete). Visitors can see the different levels of brick, the way the bricks interact with the mortar to create a sturdy seal, and the decorative glass tiling on the bottom level. They can also touch the model, feeling for themselves the strength of the brick-and-mortar combination. The inclusion of the new MIT vault, as well as the accompanying video showing how it was made, is a real strength of the exhibition.

Full disclosure: as a biologist, I’m not very familiar with structural engineering (to be perfectly honest, almost everything I know about dome and arch construction came from my visit to this museum last week). I came to the museum to learn about architecture and city planning, conveniently forgetting that architecture is itself a topic that integrates art and science. I stepped into the exhibition thinking I would learn about the decorative tiling the vaults are known for, and stepped out with a decent understanding of late-19th century construction techniques and the mechanisms by which vaults can displace many times their own weight. On my guided tour of the exhibit, other visitors ranged from architecture enthusiasts to a boy who wanted to know all about the building materials and techniques – the museum seems to have a place for learners of all interests.

Other exhibits included House & Home, a look at the American home through the years, and Investigating Where We Live: Recapturing Shaw’s Legacy, a teen-curated exhibit depicting oral histories of Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. Neither of these strayed far from science either, giving good overviews of methods of home construction and how green space interacts with a city, respectively. I love finding science in unexpected places, and the National Building Museum happily obliges. My visit reminded me to never stop thinking of ways to integrate multidisciplinary topics into my science lessons, and to never stop looking for science in everyday life.

1 Comment

  • Cynthia Robinson says:

    The Building Building! One of my favorite museums, Kacie. Although sometimes its exhibitions fall flat, especially when planned and written by architects without intervention. This is a lovely review, and makes me want to visit next time I am in DC. Sounds like you experienced a tour that effectively spanned ages and interests (in comparison to one I went on in Switzerland, in which we only covered three objects in 75 minutes, and only 4 people out of 20 remained at the end).

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