A Monumental Responsibility

The Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Castle iStock / OlegAlbinsky

The museums of the Smithsonian Institution are among the grandest buildings in Washington, but their grandeur is vulnerable to age, use, and the elements, and it needs constant tending. The same is true of the other buildings and monuments that stand along with our museums beside the great open space of the National Mall. All the capital's monuments should scrupulously reflect the shining ideals of the nation, and they, too, should shine. They are the physical manifestation of our shared sense of national identity, and they are to be cherished and protected for that reason.

The Smithsonian buildings are at home in the company of those monuments, for the Institution is our national center of cultural heritage — the repository of the creativity, the courage, the aspirations and the innovative spirit of the American people. Its collections hold a vast portion of the material record of democratic America. The most sophisticated virtual representation on a screen cannot match the experience of standing in a Smithsonian museum just a few feet away from the Star-Spangled Banner, the lap desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the hat Lincoln wore the night he was shot, the Wright brothers' Flyer or the Spirit of St. Louis.

Those icons, and countless others in our museums, have an aura that erases time and distance and restores to life key moments in the nation's history. And yet, the experience of viewing the objects is compromised by the physical deterioration of the buildings, which are becoming unworthy of the treasures they contain.

We can hide the peeling paint and leak-stained ceilings behind curtains and plastic sheets, ask visitors to indulge ill-lit exhibition spaces, and patch up worn-out machinery with improvised parts (because the originals are no longer made). But the overwhelming reality cannot be concealed: the buildings are too shabby, and the shabbiness is no way to represent America.

The great enemy of our buildings is nothing more — and nothing less — than time. The cornerstone of the Smithsonian Castle was laid in May 1847, and the building was completed eight years later. There's hardly been a time since when some part of it has not been undergoing repair or reconstruction or renovation. The problems with moisture have reached critical level, and the consequences, such as moldering plaster in the walls, are all too visible.

The Arts and Industries Building, next to the Castle, opened in 1881, and its roof began to leak shortly thereafter. The Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1910, is approaching the century mark. Construction on the Patent Office Building, in which we house our museum of American art and the National Portrait Gallery several blocks away from the Mall, began in 1836.

The age of our buildings is reason enough for concern, but there's a significant additional stress on them. They exist to be visited and used, and they have been spectacularly successful at attracting visitors. All that traffic takes a toll and leaves its wearing traces. So what time doesn't do to the museums, popularity will. And thank goodness for that. If we have to be challenged, let it be by success.

The Smithsonian has hesitated in the past to confront the full scale of its repair and renovation needs. It has tried instead to make do. But it will be undone by just making do, and the American people will be the losers. So we shall face our monumental problem head-on. The start of a new century seems the right moment to give our museums new life, commensurate with their history and purpose. We have drawn up a plan to transform the physical environment of the Institution over the coming decade, and we shall seek support for the plan from Congress, the new administration and the private sector.

The Smithsonian holds its collections on behalf of the nation. To make our museums worthy of the riches they contain is to keep proper faith with America. And that we intend to do, by turning the tables on age and restoring the buildings to health.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.