Washington, DC.- The exhibition “The Great American Hall of Wonders” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum examines the 19th-century American belief that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation. It explores this belief through works of art, mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries, and captures the excitement of citizens who defined their nation as a “Great Experiment” sustained by the inventive energies of Americans in every walk of life. “The Great American Hall of Wonders” will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through January 8th 2012. “The Great American Hall of Wonders” investigates questions that are still critical today. The exhibition reveals both the successful experiments of the past, as well as the ones that went awry, and invites today’s citizens to explore a valuable legacy left by the founding fathers: a belief in the transformative power of American inventiveness.
The exhibition features 162 objects, including paintings and drawings by pre-eminent artists, including John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Moran, Samuel F.B. Morse and Charles Willson Peale, as well as sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations, patent models and engineering diagrams. The exhibition explores six subjects that helped shape America during the period—the buffalo, giant sequoia and Niagara Falls represent American beliefs about abundant natural resources for fueling the nation’s progress, while inventions such as the clock, the gun and the railroad linked improvements in technology with the purposeful use of time. Peale’s iconic self-portrait “The Artist in His Museum” (1822), which will greet visitors at the entrance to the exhibition, embodies the ideas set forth in the exhibition. Peale—museum founder, artist, scientist and inventor—depicts himself at the threshold of his museum, a democratic reinterpretation of an Old World “wunderkammer” or cabinet of curiosities. Its galleries were filled with portraits of the founding fathers, natural history specimens, mechanical inventions and a massive mastodon skeleton. At a time when many Americans feared that the country would not survive the passing of the founders’ generation, Peale insisted that it was not the revolutionary generation, but rather invention itself that lay at the heart of the national project.
The next generation began to define what their democratic nation would be in their scientific and artistic descriptions of America’s bounteous nature and in mechanical inventions aimed at improving their lives. On July 4, 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of a patent office where the museum’s National Historic Landmark building is located. Construction began later that year. The building was designed to celebrate American invention, technical ingenuity and the scientific advancements that the patent process represents. The museum’s building was always intended for public display of patent models that were submitted by inventors. By the 1850s, more than 100,000 people each year visited the building, which became known as the “temple of invention,” to see the designs that filled display cabinets in the exhibition galleries. In addition to patent models, the government’s historical, scientific and art collections were housed on the third floor. The Patent Office occupied parts of the building from 1840 to 1932.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the nation’s first collection of American art, is an unparalleled record of the American experience. The collection captures the aspirations, character and imagination of the American people throughout three centuries. The American Art Museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal key aspects of America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. More than 7,000 artists are represented in the collection, including major masters, such as John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Helen Frankenthaler, Christo, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Lee Friedlander, Nam June Paik, Martin Puryear, and Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum has been a leader in identifying significant aspects of American visual culture and actively collecting and exhibiting works of art before many other major public collections. American Art has the largest collection of New Deal art and the finest collections of contemporary craft, American impressionist paintings, and masterpieces from the Gilded Age. Other pioneering collections include historic and contemporary folk art, work by African American and Latino artists, photography from its origins in the nineteenth century to contemporary works, images of western expansion, and realist art from the first half of the twentieth century. In recent years, the Museum has focused on strengthening its contemporary art collection through acquisitions and by commissioning new artworks. A recent renovation (2000–2006) of the Museum’s historic main building expanded the permanent collection galleries and created innovative new public spaces. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art, the first visible art storage and study center in Washington, allows visitors to browse more than 3,300 works from the collection. It adjoins the Lunder Conservation Center, which is shared with the National Portrait Gallery, the first art conservation facility to allow the public permanent behind-the-scenes views of the preservation work of museums.
In addition to a robust exhibition program in Washington, D.C., the Museum maintains a highly regarded traveling exhibition program. It has circulated hundreds of exhibitions since the program was established in 1951. From 2000 to 2005, museum staff have organized 14 exhibitions of more than 1,000 major artworks from American Art’s permanent collection that traveled to 105 venues across the United States. More than 2.5 million visitors saw these exhibitions. The Museum has several major exhibitions touring the United States. The American Art Museum is a leader in providing electronic resources to schools and the public through its national education program. We offer an array of interactive activities online featuring rich media assets that can easily be used by anyone, as well as Artful Connections, real-time video conference tours to classrooms. Museum staff maintain seven online research databases with more than 500,000 records, including the Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture that document more than 400,000 artworks in public and private collections worldwide. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers contact the Museum directly for assistance, and nearly 6 million virtual visitors from across the globe use the database resources available online. Save Outdoor Sculpture, a joint project between the Museum and Heritage Preservation, is dedicated to the documentation and preservation of outdoor sculpture. Ask Joan of Art, the Museum’s online reference service, began in 1993 and is the longest running arts-based service of its kind in the United States. American Art staff produce a series of three podcasts, also available through iTunes, which feature voices of artists, curators, museum staff, visiting lecturers and students, as well as the occasional soundtrack. In 2005, the Museum debuted Eye Level, the first blog at the Smithsonian, which has more than 7,000 readers each month. In 2008, American Art was the first museum in the world to host an alternate reality game, Ghosts of a Chance, which offered a new way of engaging with the collection in its Luce Foundation Center. Visit the museum’s website at … http://americanart.si.edu