Nichole Goes to the National Building Museum During the Day


At PoP’s request, I went to the National Building Museum. In the afternoon. In jeans. No ballgowns or tuxes in sight. Weird.

I had never been there during the day before. Well, I had once, but that was to tour the space for a fundraiser I was throwing. (we did not ultimately use the venue) But other than that, the Building Museum has always been to me a place where obligatory, formal-wear-required parties and balls and benefits take place, where all that there is to look forward to is the open bar and the hope that there will be passed hors d’oeuvres more interesting than mini-crabcakes. So when PoP asked, I gave an enthusiastic “Sure!” – especially since the very next day, I was meeting a friend for lunch at Eat First.

After lunch on Friday, we wandered over there. My friend, an employee at the GAO, said that she’d been inside many times. After all, on cold nights, it was an excellent (and warm) shortcut from her office to the Judiciary Square metro. And of course, those cookies at Firehook are fantastic. I asked if she knew what sort of stuff was in there, and other than the fountain and the columns, with which I was already familiar, she didn’t have much more of a clue than I.

To be fair, a former colleague’s wife works there. I’ve never met her, but I asked him once, “So what kind of stuff is there,” and he said, “You know, architectural stuff. An exhibit on DC. A ton of empty office space that they’re looking to rent.”


When we walked in, it was clear they were setting up for an event. Not the kind of black tie thing I was fairly used to, but something else, with a lot of booths. We later found out that it was for Discover Engineering Family Day, an event put on my the National Engineers Week Foundation and the Museum. Not ever having been especially prone to science, or math, or anything engineer-y, my response to learning this was, “Seriously?” In reality though, I wish I’d known about this in time to let all of you know beforehand (the event took place on Saturday the 21st) because it looked really cool. The woman I spoke to was from the National Science Foundation. They were in the process of constructing a tank where they would be simulating tsunamis! AND, where you could construct your own mini structures, to put in the line of the tsunami to be destroyed! When I excitedly explained how that was pretty much the coolest thing ever because tsunamis are my favorite natural disaster, the nice lady invited me back for the event. Unfortunately my extreme discomfort in the presence of one child, let alone hundreds, prevented that from happening – but damn, it seemed cool. Continues after the jump.



But, I digress. As far as stuff you can see on an ordinary day there, I’m going to be honest, not much. The DC exhibit is completely awesome, and you all should go check that out immediately, if you haven’t already. Lots of old pictures and models of the city, and some neat videos and things. (Although, my friend and I noticed that Mt. Pleasant was conspicuously absent from the video tour of DC neighborhoods.) I would have loved to have shown you, but photography is forbidden everywhere in the museum except for the atrium.


We also checked out the Green Community exhibition. It was interesting enough. My friend was a little overly enthusiastic about the Freeganism video, which makes me question whether to ever attend a party at her place, lest the guacamole be a find from the previous night’s dumpster diving excursion, but otherwise it did a good job at turning some intangible concepts of conservation and pollution into something visual and less amorphous. Again, I’d love to show you some photos, but I was warned sharply in the DC exhibit, and wasn’t going to push it.

The only other exhibit I saw (and we wandered around a lot and looked for stuff to see) was the Museum’s retrospective, Cityscapes Revealed, but by the time we got to it, I was annoyed with the no photography thing, and my friend had to catch a train so I didn’t check it out. Apparently there is also an exhibit on buildings along tourist routes in Norway, but we didn’t see it. Same with some interactive thing for kids, which we neither sought out, nor saw. I’m guessing that the set up for the event was in the way.

We did however stop into the Pension Commissioner’s Office, where we think maybe we weren’t supposed to be, but the door was open-ish, so we went in and snapped a few pics of the awesome fireplace.


Our last stop was the gift shop, which has a lot of great stuff. I was especially impressed with this fancy-schmancy chopper. (Vince Offer and his Slap Chop don’t even compare.)

So I guess my point is that the National Building Museum is a gorgeous building. And the DC exhibit is a must-see for every resident, and I could have spent the whole time in there and been happy I’d finally went. But my overall impression of the place was “eh.” It seems like it could be a great resource, and maybe I was just there on an off day, but there just wasn’t that much to it. No doubt I’ll be back, but I suspect that the next time, I’ll again be sporting formal wear and thanking God for the open bar.

UPDATE: Just chatted with a friend about this and she said to be sure to tell you to take the free tour. She said it’s really informative and goes more into the history of the actual building (the best part of the place) and she really recommends it. I might go back during the day sometime to check it out on her word.

16 Comment

  • My parents and nephew participated in this event (Discover Engineering Family Day). They had a great time.

  • In my experience, it is kind of hit or miss depending on the exhibits. My favorite was a few years ago. I seem to recall it was primarily about brick making. They had great old photos of the brick-making by hand and construction of DC rowhomes. I also recall a photo of artisans crafting the terra cotta scuptural detailing.

    I love the bookstore.

  • My mom used to work in that building back int he 1970s. Of course, back then it was called the The Pension Building, and the carpeted ground-floor area was a cubicle maze. Apparently the buidling was in pretty poor shape back then as well.

  • generally agree with this take on the place. it really is a super cool building though, i remember being struck by how worn down the stone stairs were after decades of traffic.

  • I worked at one of the booths for Discover Engineering Family Day–it was pretty fun, but I was kind of underwhelmed by how few things there seemed to be in the museum.

  • I like some of their exhibits, although I agree that the space could be better utilized and that they rely too heavily on corporate-donated “advertising” exhibits at the expense of novel architectural presentations. But… I’m a bit nonplussed at Nichole’s “review” when by her own admission she didn’t see three out of the five exhibits. Come on now…

  • The book/gift store is really, really good good, and they give great tours of the building. Liz Lerman has used the building architecture for one of her dance pieces. I’ve liked several of their exhibits over the years on innovative architecture, and materials, but I have to agree the advertising is a bit over the top.

  • i tempted here once a few summers ago… it was amazing to just wonder around during my lunch breaks, and the staff (that i interacted with anyway) were so cool and laid back! ive wanted to go back for a real tour, but i havent…thanks for reminding me to get off my lazy dc-resident-taking-all-the-sights-for-granted ass!

  • ugh, that was temped, not tempted


  • I’m going to what looks like a very cool beer festival there (which I’m assuming is not black tie). I’m told is being put together by the beer guy from Granville Moore’s. Pricey, but the wife is paying so what the heck!!

  • You left out the coolest part! On weekends, at least, they dump a ton of blocks of all varieties on the carpet, and the little kids can just sit and build. There’s also a separate enclosed play area with more blocks, a great play house, wheelbarrows, a quiet corner with pillows and books, etc etc.

    I was underwhelmed by the Building Museum cum museum, but thought it was great as a rainy-day playground.

  • Wow, WDC. That is very cool for kids and parents. My daughter’s a bit old for it now but maybe not…

  • They also have Ghost Tours around Halloween that are fun.

  • I don’t think the building museum gets enough support or recognition. Our country as a whole doesn’t do enough to involve laypersons in architectural appreciation or understanding–compared so many fantastic sister museums in Europe.

    I wish the National Building Museum had better funding for more and better exhibits. They do a pretty good job with what they’ve got, but they and we deserve better.

  • It is also a great place for a kid birthday party. We had my son’s party there a year ago and it was really fun. Museum staff take the kids on an I Spy tour around the museum, then depending on your theme (ours was trains) they read to the kids, talk about the topic and the kids and parents got to make a train car out of all their cool supplies. They gave the kids engineer hats, it was super cool.

  • Favorite natural disaster?!?

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