When the City Museum of Washington, D.C., opens in the former Carnegie Library in 2003, its new home will just have turned 100. But its strategy for telling the city’s story will be less than a decade old.
“Our goal is to help visitors get out into the city to see things for themselves,” says Lisa Forrest, campaign director for the city museum project, which is being planned by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “We don’t think we can tell the story by ourselves. We want to link up to sites all around the city.
“We consider it a 21st-century, Internet concept of decentralization,” she explains. “We can sort of be the main page that has different links. It’s a new model for a museum. We don’t know of any that are doing it right now.”
The Historical Society’s main page added a significant new link last month, when it named the architects who will design the City Museum: a joint venture between New York-based RKK&G and a local African-American-owned firm, Devrouax & Purnell. The partnership will adapt the Mount Vernon Square structure, originally built as the city’s main library and then converted to serve the University of the District of Columbia’s planned but ultimately abandoned Mount Vernon campus.
“RKK&G is the premier cultural-facilities planner and architecture firm,” says Forrest. “That’s basically all that they do. We felt that they would come to the table with a tremendous understanding of what we would need. The fact that they chose to partner with Devrouax & Purnell just made it even better.”
Devrouax & Purnell is often prized more for its political connections than its designs. Forrest expects that RKK&G principal Arthur Rosenblatt “is going to take the lead on the design of the building. Devrouax & Purnell, with their local expertise, will probably be handling all the permitting and zoning.”
RKK&G has done such flashy designs as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur room, but for the city museum, it must work within the context of the Carnegie Library. “Because it’s a historically protected site, there’s not a lot that we can do to change the building,” says Forrest. “It’s going to be preserved very much as it is now. And we wouldn’t want to change it that much, because of its historic resonance.”
Another historical building will be affected by the plans: the Heurich House Museum near Dupont Circle, the Historical Society’s current home. Forrest says that the group will move its offices to the new museum, but plans have not yet been made for a new use for Heurich House.
One other thing is still in the design phase: the plan to get people from such well-known attractions as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Zoo to a former library marooned between Techworld and the new convention center. “We’re in the process right now of trying to figure out how we can get them off the Mall,” Forrest allows. “We’re still planning the strategies.”—Mark Jenkins