It took six months, but the National Building Museum has finally found someone to occupy its yawning directorial vacuum. Museum officials will announce this week, after a nationwide search, that they have found their new honcho right here in D.C.: Gerard Martin Moeller, who currently heads the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, will assume the post of executive vice president in November. When Moeller arrives, he’ll inherit the operational reins of an institution whose biggest strengththe building itselfis its biggest weakness.
The museum occupies one of the District’s most glorious structures: the 1887 Pension Building at 401 F St. NW. But in many ways, it is a prisoner of that brick palazzo. The Pension Building’s design, which arrays relatively tiny offices and gallery spaces around its mind-blowing Great Hall, doesn’t suit exhibition needs very well. The Great Hall is the best space to show large-scale architectural works, but the museum rents the better part of it out for big dinners and parties, which brought in about 29 percent of its $4.3 million in revenues in 1997, according to the museum’s annual report. Thus its main mission is relegated to the margins.
“For many people, the museum is about the building,” Moeller says, “less about what happens inside.” The problem, critics of the museum contend, is that not much of any great import happens insidethough museum officials do report that attendance has doubled over the past four years. The museum currently has no permanent exhibition to speak of. Rather, it tends to focus on local curios and corporate PR. The perennial “Tools as Art: Exploring Metaphor, The Hechinger Collection” has been underwritten by a host of hardware and home improvement companies; and the current “The Business of Innovation: Bechtel’s First Century” was made possible by…guess who?
Moeller says that part of his mission will be to develop a permanent core exhibition covering the history of building in America. But some observers close to the museum say he’s coming in to do housekeeping for Susan Henshaw Jones. Jones resigned her post as president and director in February, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family, but then un-resigned after a June museum board meeting, deciding to stay at the museum as president only. “The board members convinced me that I could and should stay by hiring a chief operating officer,” Jones says. Hence, instead of hiring an established curator with a visionary background, the museum landed a distinguished manager.
One person close to the hiring process doubts whether even a great manager can save the museum from the paradox of its plant. “That museum cannot survive in that facility in that current form,” the source says. “They’re propped up by the money they make renting the hall. It ties them to that location, which is the wrong location.”Bradford McKee