You Should Visit the National Building Museum!

Posted on October 17, 2019 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

The National Building Museum is one of my favorite indoor spaces in Washington, DC. Here’s part of the reason why:

In addition to being a wonderful space, the NBM puts on some fantastic exhibits.

True story: several years ago I introduced my sister to this museum by announcing that we were going to see an exhibit on parking garages, no, really, don’t make that face, it’ll be great, I promise! She was skeptical, to say the least. But it had toys, and movie clips, and fun facts, and – you know – actual information about the engineering and social history behind the concept of a parking garage. My sister loved it, and is now another NBM convert. …But I digress. Right now, due to some much-needed renovation work on the historic Pension Office building the museum occupies, the NBM is preparing to close down for a few months early next year, and that means you only have a short time left to see their current exhibits, including one about a topic close to the heart of many Baltimoreans: our local movie theaters.

“Flickering Treasures,” which expands on research done for her book of the same name, was co-curated by author and photographer Amy Davis. (You may remember her modern photos of local theaters, some of which were featured some years ago in our own “Cinema Judaica” exhibition.) Like so many of the NBM’s exhibits, it looks at both the physical architecture and the social history of the topic, and includes a wide variety of historic photos, documents, and artifacts along with Ms. Davis’s images. One of those documents is on display from the JMM’s collections: A ledger from the Hippodrome Theater, 1937-1941, recording the names – and local hotel residences – of the stage performers booked by theater owner Isidor “Izzy” Rappaport.

“Record of State Attractions,” on display in “Flickering Treasures” at the NBM. Gift of M. Robert Rappaport. JMM 1988.31.1

It’s always nice to see our collections out and about, but to be honest, in this exhibit it’s the artifacts on display that I particularly love. From a variety of sources, the curators and NBM staff gathered many bits and pieces of Baltimore theaters, ranging from the grand to the mundane.

Lion’s head cornice from the McCoy/Fulton, ca. 1915.

Seats and light fixtures in a variety of styles.

I love that someone saved a “no smoking” sign from one theater, and a payphone from another. Nearly every bit of the movie-going experience can be evoked through salvaged artifacts.

Though originally scheduled to be on display into 2020, “Flickering Treasures” will now close on December 1st. Not to advocate for you spending your valuable museum-visiting time at a place other than the JMM, but… well, that is exactly what I’m advocating. You should take the time to check out this great exhibit!

While you’re there, you should, of course, look at the rest of the museum. The permanent “House and Home” exhibit (which will return when the museum reopens) is a particular favorite, and not just because three of my own personal artifacts are on display. I enjoyed “Hoops,” which I saw for the first time this week, and found another Baltimore connection in one of the photos in this show – keep an eye out for the back view of a familiar nearby landmark.  And don’t forget to visit the set of rooms – I think it was the office of the head of the Pension department – on the second floor, which are unfurnished, allowing some of the architectural features of the building shine. If the room is open, you might see a small pop-up banner exhibit on the building’s architect, Montgomery C. Meigs.  The very first exhibit I helped work on, as a graduate student some 20 years ago, was about Meigs (well, technically it was about his Washington Aqueduct, but you can’t talk about one without the other); I always try to say hi to my old friend when I’m at the NBM.

Yes, they call the building “Meigsnificent” (of which I can only assume that Gen. Meigs, who put his name on every stair tread inside the Aqueduct, would approve). That’s why I love this place.

Visiting: The National Building Museum is in downtown DC, at Judiciary Square, just a few blocks (and one Metro stop) from Union Station. There is an admission fee to enter the exhibits, but not to enjoy the main hall, or to visit the (excellent) museum shop. The museum will close on December 2nd, 2019, and reopens in March 2020 – but your last chance to see “Flickering Treasures,” and reminisce about your own favorite Baltimore movie theater memories, is December 1.

NBM exhibit photos by J. Church, October 2019.

 I promise, this is not a paid endorsement – it really is one of my favorite museums.


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