What's new in museums

March 21, 1993|By Chuck Myers | Chuck Myers,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Everything about the nation's capital seems to be new this year.

A new president has come to town, a new Congress has convened, and not one but three new additions are about to join the city's diverse and rich cultural tradition.

The lessons and horrors of the Nazi final solution, communication via the stamped envelope and the exotic beauty of the Far East will take center stage between the end of April and late July, as the United States National Holocaust Museum, the National Postal Museum and the renovated Freer Gallery of Art make their public debuts.

The first of these is probably one of the most anticipated museum openings ever to take place in the United States, if not the world.

Chartered in 1980, the National Holocaust Museum will open its door for the first time April 26 between Raoul Wallenberg Place and 14th street in southwest Washington, next to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

Thanks to a careful and well-thought-out design, the museum will contain far more than a simple chronology of events in Europe from 1933 to 1945.

Upon entering, visitors will be issued an identification card that introduces them to an actual Holocaust victim or survivor of roughly the same age and sex as the holder.

A dark odyssey then begins by descending through a system of permanent galleries and multimedia displays from the museum's fourth to second levels -- chronicling, among many horrors, Kristallnacht, enforced ghetto life and railway deportation to Hitler's death camps.

An estimated $150 million from private contributors has been committed to the museum for the building and contents, and it is hoped that an additional $18 million will be raised to help fund future education programs, symposiums and temporary exhibitions.

Across town next to Union Station and a short distance from Capitol Hill, the newest addition to the Smithsonian family is scheduled to open July 30. It will offer its unique perspective on American history from inside the city's grand beaux-arts-style former post office.

With postal museums a fixture in many countries around the world, it is a wonder that the United States, with its own postal history, did not establish one long ago.

In November 1990 this changed, as the Postal Service agreed to provide $15.4 million for the construction and installation of a National Postal Museum that would be operated by the Smithsonian.

While it undoubtedly will provide a kind of philatelic heaven for stamp enthusiasts of all ages, the scope of the National Postal Museum will be much broader.

"This is a history museum," said James H. Bruns, its director. "It looks at America's history from a unique vantage point of who has used the mail and who has benefited from it."

Artifacts that belonged to our first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin; Pony Express memorabilia; Charles Lindbergh's airmail pilot application, and, of course, a host of rare stamps, both foreign and domestic, will be among the 1,000 items on permanent view inside five galleries, and drawn from the museum's collection of 16 million objects.

Back on the National Mall, the third museum to open already is one of the Smithsonian's brightest gems.

The Freer Gallery of Art contains one of the world's finest collections of Asian and American art and has been part of the Smithsonian since 1923. It was closed in 1988 to undergo a $26 million renovation that will be just about completed when it re-opens May 9.

A new lighting system, greater storage and research space and an underground connection with its sister institution, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, are among the most notable changes that the Freer has made over the past 4 1/2 years.

With the joining of the two institutions, Washington will become home to one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Asian art.

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