William Henry Rinehart, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1873
I sat down with a gloss of the history of the Smithsonian arts holdings (adapted from William Kloss's Treasures from the National Museum of American Art) thinking that I might highlight a few of the more interesting historical facts for this blog. Kloss's introduction put me thinking in another direction, though I will note that President James Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, played an inordinately large role in Smithsonian history. (Though a federal art collection had been floating about Washington since 1829, Johnston set key events in motion in 1903, when she bequeathed her modest art collection to the "national gallery of art"—which didn't then exist.) No doubt the subject of history will come up again, but for the moment I thought it would be appropriate to address more immediate concerns.
Why this blog? I don't doubt that many of you are wondering why a museum has a blog and, by extension, why the museum thinks you ought to be reading it. You may be wondering whether you've even visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)—it's quite possible that you haven't. SAAM, nee the National Museum of American Art (and a half dozen other names over its history), has been closed since 2000; on July 4, 2006, SAAM will celebrate its reopening and the completion of its renovation. If the purpose of that closure and renovation was in part to redirect the focus of the SAAM mission, then this blog should be considered part of that effort.
Frankly, we are not entirely sure how this blog will fit into that effort—consider it a work in progress— but its fundamental goal is to foster conversation and debate about American art. I feel like there ought to be more bullet points than that, but there you have it. I don't intend to read you a slew of press releases. I certainly can't tell you anything about that dinosaur you like in that other museum—American art only here, folks. This blog is specifically anchored to SAAM in order to discuss its collection with the level of detail and attention that blogs facilitate (though you should expect posts about art and other art institutions from across the States, too). The discussion will introduce various professional vantage points as well: curators, conservators, handlers, historians, enthusiasts, critics, exhibition designers, new media developers, and bloggers.
How can a blog contribute to the museum's mission before it reopens? (A question I've asked myself, believe it or not.) I think you'll find that the history of the collection—its growth by gifts and acquisitions—reveals three things: 1) a timeline that reflects corresponding changes in American cultural assumptions about art, 2) changing standards for the purpose of this (or any) museum, and 3) new types of communication with our visitors. That's a place to start.