Dear Mr. Gover:
In its public meeting of 15 September conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a third presentation of the Smithsonian Institution’s site evaluation study for two new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. Rather than endorsing any of the four “focus” sites presented, the Commission raised strong concerns regarding the lack of vision in the Smithsonian’s planning process and provided the following guidance regarding the completion of the study.
In their discussion of the presentation, the Commission members expressed frustration that this highly consequential study appears to be informed by piecemeal decision-making instead of an overall vision and sense of comprehensive planning for the Smithsonian properties and their important presence within the highly honorific setting of Washington’s monumental core. Citing the great legacy of planning for the national capital, they questioned the narrowness of the current effort, which merely responds to specific sites and constituencies. Instead, they said that the study must consider the role of new museums in shaping this nationally significant landscape in the long term, and that it should include the conceptual accommodation of future museums to extend the American narrative within this honorific space.
The Commission members also criticized the Smithsonian for its lack of substantive response to the previous advice of this Commission and other agencies, which has been given numerous times; they reiterated that the site study should provide a real analysis of other sites beyond the four “focus” sites. They commented that the current analysis relies upon a seemingly subjective and unscientific matrix of scores to reach what appears to be a foregone decision to closely consider only a few highly prominent but problematic sites directly on the National Mall. In particular, they noted that the potential building volume presented for the Northwest Capitol site was presented as similar in height and mass to its context, whereas its actual analogue in the composition of this public landscape is the U.S. Botanic Garden, whose much smaller garden pavilion structure should be the first point of comparison for an appropriate scale. They agreed that the presented massing for a museum on the South Monument site—already constrained and accommodating less square footage than the projected program—was shown to be substantially taller than its analogue to the north, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Commission concluded by requesting that the Smithsonian undertake a more thorough and rigorous site study—one that is informed by more comprehensive planning principles and that considers in particular the viability of the adaptive reuse of the Whitten Building of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the redevelopment of the Forrestal complex of the U.S. Department of Energy. Acknowledging the Smithsonian’s schedule for making the site selections, the Commission recommended that this be extended in order to complete a comprehensive and visionary site selection study that addresses the comments provided in this meeting as well as in the previous reviews in March and July.
In accordance with the congressional authorization for the new museums, a letter from Chair Billie Tsien regarding this site selection study was sent to the Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie Bunch on 14 September (enclosed); this letter supports Chair Tsien’s letter. As always, the Commission staff is available to assist you with the completion of the site selection study.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Under Secretary for Museums and Culture
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Luanne Greene, Ayers Saint Gross