The National Museum of American Art nips and tucks its name.
In a move that rocked the Mall, the National Museum of American Art (NMAA) last week announced its fourth official change of name in a century. Henceforth, the museum wants to be known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, or SAAM. The change was pushed through both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Oct. 27.
Admittedly, “National Museum of American Art” was a bit awkward. But removing one measly “of” and changing some words around hardly makes the new name snappier. So what prompted the moniker modification?
The museum’s name has a long and tangled history. When the museum moved to its current location, at 8th and G Streets NW, in 1968, it was called the National Collection of Fine Arts. In 1980, Congress standardized Smithsonian Institution names and upgraded the museum’s title to emphasize its American focus. The gallery was re-christened the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
But the collection had existed long before it found a permanent home near D.C.’s Chinatown. It was called the Smithsonian Art Collection until 1906; that year, it was renamed the National Gallery of Art. Then, in 1937, Andrew Mellon used his own collection to establish the National Gallery of Art we know today, and the other National Gallery became the National Collection.
Confused yet? So were many patrons. Visitors would show up expecting
the National Gallery’s French impressionist paintings and get quirky Americana instead.
Today, the building housing the former NMAA and the National Portrait Gallery is undergoing more than just nomenclatural changes. A multiyear program of reconstructive surgery is under way, and the museum is closed to the public until 2003. Meanwhile, SAAM’s collection is touring the country in a series of eight traveling exhibitions, collectively called “Treasures to Go.”
That makes the time ripe to “reinvent ourselves,” says SAAM director Elizabeth Broun.
Broun says the most recent name change was in the works for about two years. The compulsion to change the name again arose back when SAAM honchos were struggling to identify a subtitle for each of the eight “Treasures to Go” shows. “Treasures from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution” seemed too unwieldy. Ultimately, SAAM was suggested. After museum officials OK’d the change with the museum’s Board of Commissioners, the museum submitted a proposal to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.
How could the Smithsonian object when it got top billing? The regents signed off on the change and turned to Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, and Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to sponsor the enabling legislation required to change a national museum name. “‘Smithsonian’ is universally loved,” explains Broun. “We wanted to put it at the front. When a show travels to your town, [the new name] signals that the Smithsonian has come to call.” Besides, adds Broun, “[The old name] seemed too bulky.”
The name Smithsonian “elicits positive feelings from people,” notes Broun.
Ongoing visitor confusion was also an issue. Over the last two decades, there has been a proliferation of museums whose names begin with the word “national.” “There was a certain amount of confusion,” Broun reports. “Mail gets misrouted. Telephone calls [get mixed up].”
Now the museumthe only Smithsonian branch whose name actually includes “Smithsonian”may find itself fielding calls meant for the Smithsonian Castle, as the Smithsonian’s visitors’ center is commonly called.
SAAM’s location near the MCI Centerwell off the Mall museum loophas sometimes proved a hindrance to the museum’s brand recognition, as well. Broun hopes the name change will help remedy the public’s “generally vague perception of who we are and where we are.”
So why not rename the museum something more elegant, like the Smithsonian Museum of American Art? “It was a close call,” Broun concedes. “But shorter is better.” And that means no prepositions. The director cites the Tate family of galleries in England for starting the current vogue for sound-bite-ready museum names. “I watched the Tate rename itself to the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern,” the director says.
Meanwhile, the museum’s Web site, www.nmaa.si.edu, is flirting with revisionist history: Press releases dating as far back as January 1999 have been rewritten to include the new name. “We decided it was too confusing to educate people about when the name switched and what the old name was,” Broun says of the retroactive name change.
Could this herald other changes along the Mall? Will we have the Smithsonian African Art Museum? The Smithsonian Hirshhorn Art Museum?
Don’t toss your old tourist maps yet. “When we got the press release, I went around asking if there were any plans” for a change of name, says Michele Colburn of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s press office. So far, the answer is no. At least, “not that we’ve heard of,” she says. Ditto Janice Kaplan at the National Museum of African Art. Says Kaplan: “We like our name. It reflects well who we are.” CP