Shifting Spatialities

Honors Thesis in Architectural Studies about the National Museum of American History and the exhibit American Democracy, completed in 2023.

April 29, 2023
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Shifting Spatialities

This project was completed in spring 2023 for honors in the Architectural Studies major at Boston University (BU). This research was supported by a Brown/Weiss Travel Grant. This is the first architecture honors thesis written in the history of BU's program. In spring 2023, a short version of this thesis was presented at the MFA's Undergraduate Visual Culture Conference.

What happens when a people decide to govern themselves? They invent their own stories. That’s the underlying theme at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) where ‘history’ is made tangible, comprehensible, and generational through the amalgamation of ‘everyday’ artifacts and ‘iconic’ artifacts. The goal of any national museum is most explicitly tied to the production of cultural and national memory. This memory of the ‘imagined’ nation is what enforces belonging, which is, in a sense, ‘citizenship.’ National museums like the NMAH balance several paradoxical needs: they appeal to broad and diverse swaths of citizens while remaining relevant, ensure that content is both aesthetically and informatively appealing while being accessible, and work to ease tensions that prohibit visitor engagement with their content. Increasingly, more museums are beginning to operate without walls. Traveling exhibitions, sponsored events, and physical touch points in the museum that extend exhibits and information to the realm of the digital like QR codes, AR/VR components, websites, surveys, audio guides and on — all show how the national museum is adapting to the modern world, re-fabricating memory, access, and belonging. Using the NMAH and its exhibit “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” as a paradigmatic case study for the shift from the architectural to the exhibitional to the digital, Shifting Spatialities is an exploration of the emerging digital zeitgeist and the broader implications of this shift on the role of the national museum within these new mediums.

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