Week 27: Octagon


American Institute of Architects goal: With nearly 300 state and local chapters, the AIA serves as the voice of the architecture profession and the resource for our members in service to society.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) maintains the Octagon Museum, a historic house with a misnomer: it is actually shaped like a hexagon, with a circle added to the front. Built in 1801, the Octagon was occupied by the Tayloe family, and then by James and Dolley Madison after the White House was burned by the British in 1814.

Octagon

Octagon

Visitors can take self-guided tours that focus on how the house would have been furnished and used by the wealthy residents (on the first floor) and by the slaves and servants (in the basement), with the second floor currently exhibiting posters and books from the Parks for the People: A Student Competition to Re-imagine America’s National Parks contest.

The contest, sponsored by the National Park Service and the Van Alen Institute, asks student teams from universities to create proposals re-envisioning a national park in response to 21st-century challenges. (One of these parks is DC’s network of Civil War Defenses of Washington.) Specifically, the contest inquires:

  • “How can design enhance the park experience?”
  • “How can parks become more accessible?”
  • “What is ‘preservation’ and how can it evolve?”
  • “What new ventures or partnerships can help connect parks to people?”
  • “What is ‘sustainability’ and what is its future role?”
  • “What part can technology play in parks?”

NPS, like so many of the rest of us, is struggling to get by right now. Recent news articles have been reporting the effects of sequestration on what is known as “America’s best idea.” These effects include everything from dirtier restrooms, to weddings that have to be relocated, to furloughs of staff, to reduced visitor center hours or permanent closures of visitor centers. Education programs are being cut, parades cancelled, trash picked up less often. Here in DC, there will be fewer events and interpretive programs at local NPS sites (along with the sequester’s impact on other cultural destinations such as the Smithsonian museums, the National Archives, the White House, and the National Arboretum). In short, sequestration is making it hard for the Department of the Interior (which oversees NPS) to fulfill its mission.

While these developments do not bode well for those who want to visit national parks (let alone those who are trying to make a living by working at one), it was refreshing to see the posters at the Octagon that take a longer, more hopeful view of what the parks can be and become in this century.  Here are just a few of the phrases I read on the posters:

  • “move interpretation out of the visitor center and into the landscape” (University of Washington)
  • “serve as catalysts for change by engaging users, reconfiguring perceptions, and revealing landscapes” (Cornell University)
  • “enhance the interconnectedness of places and people, past and future” (University of Pennsylvania)

These projects reflect the potential for national parks to be relevant to people in a variety of ways (and dogs, too, as can be seen in a couple of posters that show dogs walking with humans and fellow canines). The posters describe new kinds of visitor centers as well as interpretive opportunities outside the visitor center altogether, the importance of meeting community needs, and the idea of sustainability as applied to environment, culture, and the integration of the two.

So, what do these posters have to do with the Octagon? Well, as the AIA headquarters, the Octagon is a museum about the built environment and architecture, not just about its own storied history as a house. The Octagon can appropriately show exhibits on the many sides of architecture and design. Also, the exhibit touches upon questions that concern a great many historic sites: How can we preserve and sustain an environment (historical or natural, built or wild) while also being innovative in how we interpret it? And how do we honor (or judge) historic figures in a way that is relevant and interesting to people of the present and future?

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May’s blog theme is Preserving and Interpreting Creativity.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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