Why do the museum buildings all look different?

Buildings on the National Mall do not conform to one architectural style. Built at different times, each museum is an artifact that represents changing trends in architecture and changing ideas about how the Mall should look. Architectural styles of early Smithsonian museums from the mid and late-1800s resemble university buildings, making the Mall look like a center for learning. Neo-classical museums constructed in the early 1900s give the Mall a unified and ordered feel that connects with other public buildings in the city. Modern museums from the late 1900s and early 2000s connect to the surrounding spaces making the Mall a more visitor-centered experience.

Why do the museum buildings all look different?

The two earliest museums of the National Mall, The Smithsonian Castle (1855) and the Arts and Industries Building (1881), are examples of the Victorian Gothic Revival. The Gothic Revival movement originated in England, mirroring designs of cathedrals, universities, and castles. Designing in this style connected the earliest Smithsonian museums with other institutions that stressed importance of knowledge. Architects wanted these buildings to communicate that the young United States valued scientific discovery, research, and education.

The Roman style of the National Museum of Natural History (1911) represents neo-Classical design typical of public buildings in the early 1900s in the US. The museum originally displayed history, art, scientific, and natural history collections. These columned, stone, symmetrical buildings were designed to highlight the nation's links to the democratic ideals of the ancient Romans and Greeks. As public architecture, the designs spoke of the importance of an active, engaged, and educated citizenry. The National Gallery of Art's West Building (1941) is another example of neo-classical architecture on the Mall.

To blend with other museums and monuments on the Mall, the National Museum of American History (1964) was designed in a modern style with neo-Classical elements. The architects designed a symmetrical front that suggested classical columns without building actual columns and constructed flat marble panels instead.

The modern designs of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974) and the National Air and Space Museum (1976) connect visitors to collections when standing inside and outside of the buildings. The Hirshhorn's floating concrete cylinder looks like a piece of sculpture that keeps visitors focused on the art inside, while also connecting visitors to art outside in a sculpture garden. The rectangular and boxy National Air and Space Museum uses walls of windows to connect its aviation and spaceflight collections to the skies. At night, interior lighting makes the collections visible to passersby.

The National Museum of the American Indian (2004) represents a modern expressionist style that was shaped by input from many Native communities. The design's curved form looks like a wind-sculpted rock formation. The building is tied to nature with the landscaping outside, and inside through windows at the top of its main dome. Like other structures built on the Mall before it, the National Museum of the American Indian offers a new way to experience a museum's collections and stories through its unique architectural design.