The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 19 different museums and, although its overall impression is best described as venerable, there is a splashy appeal attached to certain galleries that dazzle visitors with diamonds, ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, dinosaurs, rocket ships and pandas. In the surge to see I.M. Pei’s East Building or the stunning Kogod Courtyard, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden can get overshadowed.
I have, at times, “forgotten” about the Hirshhorn, only including it on a personal tour at the last minute when a child in my party asks about the doughnut-shaped structure. Strangely for me, in spite of its spacecraft appearance, instead of pulling my attention away from the traditional Smithsonian buildings that surround it, I find that the cement-colored museum fades into the background. But, when someone like a curious child points it out, you are amazed that you could miss it: the architecture really makes a statement.
A 1989 review in the Washington Post had this to say: “[The Hirshhorn is] the biggest piece of abstract art in town—a huge, hollowed cylinder raised on four massive piers, in absolute command of its walled compound on the Mall. … The circular fountain…is a grand concoction…that for good reason has become the museum’s visual trademark.” I do love the contrast between its tiered outdoor Sculpture Garden emphasizing the pleasure of rectangular spaces and its curved gallery walls, designed explicitly to hold the modern and contemporary works collected by Joseph Hirshhorn throughout his life.
Walking the circular hallways becomes part of the artistic experience and it is never as crowded on a summer afternoon as the museum where the Hope Diamond sits. You can watch an edgy film in the Black Box theater or scratch your head over some of the more untraditional works. (I was doing just that when a friendly docent stopped over with thoughts and explanations of a work, which allowed me to savor something that challenged my idea of what constitutes art.)
The museum does a great job with programming. There are Friday Gallery Talks, Meet the Artist lectures, After Hours events with music, and inventive workshops for teens. The collection offers Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Edward Hopper and many others, but focuses on art created in the last 50 years. A destination this bold and forward-thinking should not be overlooked. Move it to the top of your Mall destinations!