Credit: Illustration by Tim Gough

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I can never find it,” says a character in D.C. novelist Kevin Canty’s Into the Great Wide Open as she walks around the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. “I have to get lost first and then I always end up in front of it.”

“Are we supposed to be down here?” asks her companion, before they find what they’re looking for: “a gigantic Salvador Dali painting, the Last Supper rising out of the clouds with some sort of geometric structure evanescing behind Jesus.”

Bingo.

Remember when you could go to a history, a technology, or even an art museum, and you could get lost in dark corridors and far-flung rooms? Used to be that museums left you alone. Used to be that finding things in them was your own responsibility, and then thinking about them was up to your own brain. Having a fun time at the museum was all about getting lost first and then always ending up right in front of something great.

These days, museums do all of the discovery for you. You’ve got to contend with “interpretation” galore: signs, stories, messages—lessons that the museums think you need to understand. And forget about those dark corridors: Any museum with the money to do it is busy erecting a glass-and-steel atrium, making a cultural institution look like an Embassy Suites.

Thing is, museums don’t think of themselves as cultural institutions anymore—they’ve got to compete with movie theaters, theme parks, and sporting events for patrons. “A museum is counterintuitive to what’s dominant in recreation,” says Robert D. Sullivan, who just left the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History after 37 years in the curatorial field. “If society stresses distraction, we have to stress engagement.”

To do that, he says, museums have to use the tactics of the “distraction industry.” None of those tactics include wandering, mystery, surprise—nothing that leads a visitor to look at an object and suddenly feel the humanity behind it.

Objects such as:

• the footlocker-sized model-train cars at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Medical Center. It takes a moment to realize they’re what the Army used to plan how to carry massive numbers of wounded soldiers out of battle.

• the Spotsylvania tree stump, an oak tree chopped down by Civil War rifle fire during the May 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Imagine the flying steel that in an afternoon cut down a 22-inch-thick tree, leaving Minié balls embedded in it.

• Dave’s Dream, the 1969 Ford LTD two-door low rider belonging to the National Museum of American History. It’s painted with multicolored reflective metal-flake paint and studded with portraits of creator David Jaramillo’s family. Under its open hood is a red velour-quilt engine cover that matches the interior upholstery.

Except you can’t see the lowrider right now. The National Museum of American History closed this September for major renovations. Besides bringing the heating and cooling systems up-to-date, renovations will include “a light-filled atrium, a grand stairway, a state-of-the-art gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner, and new visitor amenities” when it opens again in summer 2008, according to a museum poster.

The building, which opened in 1964, predates the all-important atriums of newer museums, so one is being cut through the ceiling and a few floors. “Contemporary audiences are not used to museums this dark,” says Patrick Ladden, the renovation program’s director.

Full disclosure: With the museum’s closing, I’m now a former docent volunteer in the Museum of American History’s Hands on Science Center. I know the building’s infrastructure needs to be updated, and, as museum director Brent D. Glass says, people get lost just looking for the escalators. After the renovation, he says, improved “wayfinding” will make it easier to get around the museum. But something is lost with the skylight and new central staircase: a measure of romance.

This was brought home at a briefing for docents about the renovation. Ladden described the new atrium space: In it there will be a large “abstract flag” to herald the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit, he told a couple dozen of us. The very flag that Francis Scott Key saw flying by dawn’s early light over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, inspiring him to write the National Anthem, used to hang in the museum’s central space but now is tissue-paper thin in places and too delicate to be displayed vertically. An abstract flag would now stand in its place in the building.

An abstract flag? I asked. Plenty of artists have abstracted the flag. Who’s the artist who’ll make the museum’s new one?

“Not an artist,” Ladden replied. “An architectural firm is going to do it.” It’s a challenging task, he added. The abstract flag has to do several things: inspire people to walk into the adjacent gallery holding the actual Star-Spangled Banner, be an obvious place where visitors will know to meet when they say, “Meet me at the flag,” and, for the docents, reflect the museum’s past life as the Museum of History and Technology in its wavy stripes of reflective material.

“It’s a symbol—a focal point—and there for a sort of ‘Wow!’ factor,” Ladden added in a recent telephone interview.

But does the “Wow!” factor really come from a 40-foot-by 19-foot metallic flag? Or does it come from stumbling across Walt Whitman’s pen in a small, poorly lighted case in the National Portrait Gallery? The dipping pen’s chrome nib is dull from all the ink that has passed through it—it’s the color of charcoal—and a fingertip-sized spot of chrome is worn down to brass on the pen’s top. You can see that it’s a thick pen before you read from its stamped logo that it is a “mammoth” model, by the Esterbrook & Co. pen company. You can see that Walt Whitman did not bite the ends of his pens.

When you enter the newly reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum, you immediately encounter several galleries of large tableau paintings. We’re talking big images—of mountains, skies, and the glorious Western landscape. They are awesome. To look at them is a sensory feast; they speak for themselves.

But the museum speaks for them, too. In letters 6 inches high and taller, often boldfaced, the museum has painted quotations extolling the American landscape:

“The whole continent, in short, seemed prepared to be the abode of a great nation, yet unborn”—Alexis de Toqueville. The quotation is as big as the paintings are.

“Always the continent of Democracy; Always the prairies, pastures, forests, vast cities, travelers…”—Walt Whitman, equally large.

And next to a rainbow over Yellowstone: “The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe.”—John Muir

Do we really need the book-jacket blurbs to inspire us?

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Eleanor Harvey, chief curator of the American Art Museum, says the exhibits are planned “with a family of four from Idaho in mind.”

“They’ve spent a few days in a station wagon knowing they’ve got to see the Smithsonian,” she says. “They get here and learn it’s not one museum but 16 museums and galleries. When they get to American Art they’ve already been to the bigger three—Air & Space, Natural History, and American History. I plan for their feet to be tired before they walk in the door.”

So, too, apparently, their minds. And the National Museum of Natural History has become similarly patronizing when it comes to its patrons.

Before the renovation of the museum’s Hall of Mammals started in September 1998, discovering the animals used to involve looking into diorama display cases with the animals stuffed and placed in habitat-specific nature scenes, complete with an eye-level flat horizon painted on the back wall of each.

Today the vast bulk of the stuffed mammals are grouped together in gray-background glass cases just inside the entrance to the hall. They’re grouped without regard to their habitats—a panda (from Asia) next to a moose (from all over the place) and a white rhinoceros (from Africa) with a “large flying bat” (from Southeast Asia). They look like stuffed animals in sales cases at the Gap; in fact, the whole Hall of Mammals is so busy with cloud-bursting sounds, changing lights, recorded roars, and busy shapes of color painted on the walls that it looks less like a museum and more like a shopping mall.

Sullivan, formerly of the National Museum of Natural History, says that the early visitors were asked what they learned and retained from the hall. “Everyone who comes out understands three things: that mammals have hair, that mammals are fed by their mother’s milk, and that all mammals have a funny-shaped small bone in their ears,” he says. “We’ve made the hall to say that, and it works.”

Not long after it reopened in November 2003, I went there to see one of its greatest pieces, the leaping tiger, Panthera tigris. Before the renovation, the tiger was in the center of a corridor with no case. The figure is long—it seems like at least 8 feet of raw killer cat, tail extended, and front claws out and poised to make the kill, jaws fully open.

In the corridor you could stand a few feet from it. Your head was right next to its head; you could touch it if you wanted to break the rules. A master taxidermist crafted it—a steel girder must be inside it holding it up, because the huge cat is leaping on its hind legs and the body is cantilevered without any other support.

The tiger is still there today, but there’s so much hanging in the hall and so many mammals stacked on top of one another that it’s lost, its back half obscured in a hidden corner niche on the hall’s second-floor level. Its size and danger and display craft are lost. Attached to its identifying plaque are the words that say it all: look way up.

The museum now has a heavier hand with its message about nature. The experience is “heavily mediated,” Sullivan says. Step 1 is to show how something in the natural world is “too beautiful to mess up. Step 2 is, ‘Oh, by the way, don’t mess it up, or else you’ll die,’ ” because the ecology of the Earth is so interdependent.

Sullivan remembers a conversation he had early in his career with a pioneer in the field, Al Parr, who in the 1940s was in charge of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He asked Parr what he would change about developing display styles. “He said there was too much science and too many details. That what was missing was love of nature and plain passion.”

Take the stuffed elephant in the museum’s atrium. For many years it was just a huge elephant, raising trunk and tusks and freeze-framed over your head with feet the size of wastebaskets. Today, it’s a lesson, a message—an experience to make you think of the elephant, the grasslands where it lives, what it eats, and how they all relate to one another. “There are 154 different species in that display diorama,” Sullivan says proudly.

But there are many stuffed animals left over from the old dioramas that were removed for the renovation. They’re packed in storage in the museum’s suburban warehouse facility, Sullivan says, and he’s almost sad for them. “They were treated heavily with arsenic [to kill insects] and specially wrapped because they’re poisonous. It’s too dangerous to open the wrapping now, so they just sit there. They’ll never be opened again.”

Harvey, of the American Art museum, recalls a “museum moment” among the paintings and sculptures she’s picked and arranged—one that had nothing to do with wall plaques or “wayfinding” or visitor surveys. One day she saw two sculptures, on opposing walls, that she’d seen hundreds of times. One, Concord Minute Man of 1775, by Daniel Chester French, of a man carrying a rifle, and the other, The Puritan, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, of a fat man with a thick Bible under his arm.

“There you have it, I suddenly thought,” she recalls. “Guns and Bibles have always been the tools of American persuasion.”

There’s a new place to find this old style of museum adventure inside Harvey’s museum—the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. It’s a “visual storage and study center,” and it’s the first of its kind in D.C.

The center houses the museum’s second string—the things that didn’t get wall space in the main galleries. In this packed space, you can see the storage in narrow short corridors, like library stacks. The pieces don’t have plaques or descriptions or messages about poetics, politics, or outside grandeur. Here the grandeur springs from the pieces themselves, and you can relate to the works as products of artists’ brains and hands. You can find:

• folk-art paintings, packed frame edge to frame edge—Howard Finster’s knockout 1980 canvas Bible Flying (#1805), for instance, with the near-perfect detail of a Delta Airlines jet flying over a scene of biblical apocalypse.

• aisles of odds-and-ends sculptures and busts. Like a waving 2-foot-tall Winston Churchill, and my favorite, an old man in military tunic and a full-head stocking cap.

• folk-art walking sticks. Bird-shaped handles, snake handles, an upside-down heeled-boot handle, an arched-nude-woman handle, and a lizard-biting-a-snake’s-head handle. Straight sticks, bent sticks, all kinds of sticks.

• cabinets of jewelry, many pieces of magnificent innovation and discomforting beauty. A gold skull ring, Kim Eric Lilot’s 1997 Self-Portrait Without Skin, which isn’t goth kitsch in the slightest. Or Robert Ebendorf’s Lost Soul, Found Spirit necklace from 1996, with a crucifix and a bird’s foot hanging at the center, among other pendants.

All these are presented with nothing but identifying numbers that you can type into nearby computers to get more information if you want it. Sometimes there’s the artist’s name. But otherwise there’s only silence here, and things over which your eyes may wander. You can let them stick if something tells you it’s worth it.

Computer systems like this are where the museum biz is headed, to the point that you won’t even really need to visit a museum to explore its collections. Glass, the American History director, says there’s tension among curators and other museum professionals about the current trend of going “into the quote-unquote Disneyification of museums,” he says. But he thinks that big museums such as his can do it all—inspire visitors so that once they go home, they can view more objects on a Web site.

“[Visitors] only have an hour to spend here,” Glass says, “but they can go back to their desktop computer”—where a steam engine is the same size as a sewing thimble in digital images and there’s no wandering in dark and mysterious corridors where surprises big and small await.

But there’s hope even here. When the American History renovation is finished, that museum will have a similar visual storage facility, too, to hold antique marine and firefighting objects donated by CIGNA Corp., an insurance company. “We’ll have the leather buckets [from horse-drawn water carriages] with the individual fire company’s numbers on them, and they’re all hand-painted,” Glass gushes. “And even the little plaques people put on their houses to show they’d paid their fire-insurance dues.”