The Smithsonian unveiled a plan Thursday to give museums and gardens along the south side of Washington's National Mall a $2 billion facelift, creating more welcoming entrances, improving connections between the museums and refurbishing the iconic Smithsonian Castle.
The plans would be paid for with a mix of federal and private money and implemented over 10 to 20 years. Construction won't likely start for five to seven years. At the plan's heart are improvements to the first Smithsonian building, the Smithsonian Castle, which opened in 1855 and has never undergone a complete renovation. The building now houses an information center and administrative offices as well as the tomb of James Smithson, the English scientist whose half-million dollar gift got the institution started under his name.
Under the master plan, the Smithsonian Castle would get two underground levels including a cafe and store. And its entrance hall, chopped up over years, would be returned to one grand space. The building, which played a role in the 2009 movie "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," would also be retrofitted to make it more resistant to damage from earthquakes like the one that hit the region in 2011. Planning for the construction would begin in 2016, with work expected to start in 2021.
Also key to the plan, which was designed by the Copenhagen- and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group, is improving connections between the museums in the five-block area, including spaces and buildings dedicated to African, Asian and modern art.
During a news conference Thursday at the Smithsonian Castle, architect Bjarke Ingels showed how his group's plan would move closer to the National Mall the entrances to two underground museums, the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which houses contemporary Asian art. The current entrances are small, above-ground buildings in a garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.
Ingels proposes removing those and creating glass entrances that emerge from the ground along with a "moat of skylights" that lets light into the underground spaces and give "sneak peaks" into galleries. The spaces would also be expanded by 30 percent.
"When you come here in the evening, there's not much light around here. It's not a welcoming kind of appearance here in the evening," said Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian.
Ingels also wants to change the entrance to doughnut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum, which houses modern and contemporary art and sculpture, by lowering the walls around it to make it more inviting. And he wants to make navigating between the museums easier, improving the current "labyrinthian experience." All the museums would also get improvements to aging infrastructure.
Albert Horvath, the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for Finance and Administration, said Thursday that approximately $2.5 million had been spent developing the plan over roughly the past two years. The plan still has to be reviewed by a number of agencies including the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversee building in the capital.