I was recently at the Medical Center-NIH Metro, with a little bit of time to fill before a doctor’s appointment nearby in Bethesda. I entered the National Institutes of Health campus and expressed interest in seeing the museum.
The security officer gave me a good-natured laugh. “We don’t have a museum!”
Oh dear. “But – your website says – the Stetten Museum in Building 10-”
She shrugged. “Okay, you can go to Building 10 and see if there’s a museum.” She gave me a visitor’s badge and a map and had me walk through the metal detector.
NIH’s website lists three museum exhibits in Building 10, and three exhibits each located in one of three other buildings on the NIH campus. I started with the first exhibit listed, which is also the first one I came upon in Building 10 (Innovation and Invention: NIH and Prosthetic Heart Valves).
It is a small exhibit in the lobby of a building that is clearly used primarily for something other than museum exhibits. I read about the people who invented various iterations of the heart valve, continuously trying to improve the invention and save lives, and I read about the people who benefited from these advances.
I ran out of time before I could find the other two medical exhibits in Building 10, though I did also peruse a series of science-inspired art pieces along a hallway. If I had had more time to spare, I would have loved to see more of the whole NIH campus. I never had a clear sense of exactly where I was and was not allowed to go, so I would have had to balance my curiosity with my desire to be a good visitor and not get in trouble.
NIH’s museum is similar to some other museums that I’ve visited, in the sense that the place is primarily something else, not a museum. Other examples that come to mind from my Weekly Museum Visits are Voice of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Headquarters. I was able to take a tour of both these sites, but they were not places where I could have just walked in at any time during the day, spent as much time there as I wanted, and bought postcards at a gift shop. Instead, I had to sign up for guided tours in advance and show up at an appointed time and stay with the guide at all times. I am pretty sure that mentioning either of these places would elicit that oft-asked question in others: “How do you find out about all these things?” because they are just not on the major-things-to-do-in-DC radar.
On the other hand, there are places like the Capitol Visitor Center and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that have specific non-museum functions, but also have a popular, well-known, robust museum experience component. These buildings have, as you can imagine, high security, and during the guided tour, staying with your guide is crucial. But there are also exhibit spaces and gift shops you can explore on your own, and brochures and kids’ activities you can take home.
There are interesting places everywhere, to be sure. But the not-so-museum-y-museums do raise a valid question: how welcoming an experience do they provide visitors? As much as I am always eager to explore, and as careful as I am to follow rules, there is still that lingering sense of “am I really supposed to be here?” Should I really be hanging out on the NIH campus when I am neither a medical professional nor a staff member nor a patient?
And I can’t exactly blame NIH for not spending more time making glossy exhibit guides or building a gift shop. (Or, if it already has these things, I can’t blame NIH for not making them more prominent to visitors.) Their business of curing diseases and treating patients does seem a wee bit more important.
So on that day, after spending as much time as I had available looking at valves and paintings, I left NIH, dropped my visitor badge in the hopefully correct receptacle, and walked the half mile to my decidedly un-museum-like doctor’s office, where, like most doctors’ offices, nary a person ever comes just to look at exhibits.
Medical Center-NIH is on the Red Line.