Last spring the National Building Museum (NBM) launched House & Home, a long-term exhibition devoted to exploring the evolution and meaning of house. This year they've added docent-led tours to help visitors dive deeper into the philosophy behind the exhibition. NBM curators researched and discussed exactly what and how to present this show for years. If you go, you'll see wall sections showing architectural and construction techniques involved in creating a residence; as well as the people, activities, and objects that generate an emotional connection to the building. Museum curators first proposed the idea of this mega-exhibition exploring the built environment in 1997.

“This idea of an all-encompassing exhibition on our built environment was being planned long before I came to the museum,” says NBM curator Sarah Leavitt, “but they decided to make residential buildings the focus because it’s something that everyone can relate to, plus almost everyone can share a story about why they live where and how they do.” Leavitt goes on to explain that this exhibition is organized differently than most. “It’s not a chronological presentation, but instead we looked at creating visual interpretations of the meanings that the words ‘house’ and ‘home’ conjure.”

Occupying seven galleries—more than a quarter of the museum’s second floor—House & Home explores the design, objects, techniques, history, activities, influences, and emotions that go into creating these personal spaces. The first three galleries are combined into one immense space divided into house on one side and home on the other. “They are very connected ideas, but we tried to separate the words out to make visitors think about what it means when they say ‘house’ versus ‘home,’” Leavitt says. “Is one more architectural and one more emotional for homeowners, like we assumed for this exhibition?”

The centerpiece of this main gallery reflects the exhibit’s version of what house means. The NBM commissioned 14 scale models of iconic American residences and placed them down the center of the space. Famous houses were chosen for their architectural significance as well as the stylistic influence they provided and perhaps still hold for future residential design. Mount Vernon, Monticello, the John Hancock Center, Fallingwater, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica residence are just some of the models built for this exhibition.

Also part of the house display, six life-size wall sections invite hands-on exploration of prevalent residential construction techniques: adobe, timber frame, balloon frame, platform frame, glass curtain wall, and SIPs. 

More than 200 objects from kitsch (1970s Farrah Fawcett poster) to luxury (handmade Tiffany lamp) adorn the home side of the space. Silent films, which show everything from celebrations, dinners, and holidays to people doing their laundry and watching TV, add an animated element to the home display. Curators collected items and images from myriad time periods and geographic regions for these presentations. “The home portion of the exhibition is about the activities that go on inside the house,” Leavitt explains, “so objects were selected for their nostalgia and personal connection.”

Visitors will move from the expansive opening space to smaller galleries that are focused on specific aspects of residential design, construction, ownership, government involvement, discrimination, economics, and the recent housing crash. In the final space, curators merged the ideas of house and home by showing how a house becomes a home and how a collection of homes make up a community.

Upcoming education programs in conjunction with the show include student apprenticeships in house design and construction; adult courses on various aspects of home life including kitchen design and buying a house; large-scale family festivals; and professional symposia for residential architects, builders, policymakers, and other industry experts.

“Our overall mission involves explaining to visitors what our residential built environment is and how it affects us,” Leavitt says. “But we also hope to illuminate some of the motivations and influences behind why we live the way we do as a society and as individuals.” Leavitt says she and other NBM curators believe there are specific reasons why our houses look the way they do, and she hopes “visitors will see something in the exhibition that shows them a new possibility in the way they live.”