• Ellen Shapiro



Those are the words above the elevator into the lower level of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The descent took me down to a striking, larger-than-life, long term installation designed by Barbara Kruger.

At first I thought that those words — a long sentence for Barbara Kruger — were directed at just about every human in our consumerist society. But I soon realized that they could be especially pointed at our President, who shut down the government a week before my December 30, 2018, visit. Luckily, the Smithsonian Museums on the Capitol Mall were still open, but they were to close a few days later. So, at the time, I could hardly suggest that you take that escalator down to see every surface of the walls, floors, and escalators covered with provocative words in 12-foot extra-condensed caps.

Now, with a “state of emergency” rather than another shutdown, they’ll stay open (we hope).

The title of the exhibition, “Belief+Doubt=Sanity,” the artist has said, explores themes of power, design, money, and faith. Belief is tricky, she has noted, “because left to its own devices it can court an unquestioning alliance that fears doubt and destroys differences.” Although this exhibit has been in place for nearly six years, it could also refer to loyal Trump supporters—and to all of us, one way or another.

I had many questions about the design and production of the exhibit, and Al Masino, the Hirshhorn’s director of exhibition design and special projects, graciously made himself available to answer them.

Q: How else has the lower floor been used?

A: Prior to this installation, the museum shop was in the lobby on the plaza level and the lower-level escalator lobby was used as an exhibit space for paintings. Nam June Paik’s Video Flag was installed at the foot of the escalators for a long time.

Whose idea was it to have Barbara Kruger cover the walls and other surfaces? Did she approach the museum?

The Hirshhorn’s former director, Richard Koshalek, invited Barbara Kruger to activate this space while relocating the museum shop to this area.

How long did it take to get the exhibition designed and installed?

Planning, design, and review took about 18 months. The installation was completed at night when the museum was closed, over the course of three or four days.

Was an architect or interior designer involved in measuring and drawing up the various spaces and surfaces?

An in-house exhibit designer and our graphic design and production manager provided all architectural specifications and photos, which were used for concept renderings and during the design and production phases.

How were the panels produced?

The material is 3M printable vinyl. It’s similar to the vinyl used to cover buses and coat the interiors of subway cars with ad campaigns, but the floor has a laminate applied during the production process, which makes it safer to walk on and more durable. The vendor, Coloredge, Inc., located in NYC, was specified by the artist. 3M donated a large portion of the raw vinyl that was printed by Coloredge.

Were there any setbacks during the installation process when a panel didn’t fit or adhere properly? Do any of the panels on well-traveled surfaces, like the escalators, need to be replaced?

We prepped the walls and floor as per manufacturer and vendor specifications to ensure proper adhesion. We have not experienced any problems during the installation or after. The durability has exceeded expectations. 3M suggested a three-year lifespan for their product. We are now approaching six years, although we recently have begun seeing signs of wear on the floor. The walls look as good as the day we installed them. We’ve made a couple of minor repairs, but have not replaced any full panels. We maintain the floor by waxing it three times a year as per manufacturer recommendations.

Who was there to protect the art and the museum itself when it was closed during the government shutdown? Were you prepared?

Prior to the shutdown, the Hirshhorn preemptively created a plan to ensure the museum’s preparedness and flexibility with regard to art safety. Security is in the building at all times.

Now let’s take a closer look at a few more details:

The aphorisms, by necessity cropped in my photos, are, according to the museum, “open-ended questions that draw attention to the power structures that define daily life”: WHO IS BEYOND THE LAW? WHO SPEAKS? WHO IS SILENT? WHO IS FREE TO CHOOSE? And even WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU LAUGHED?

Naturally, though, in addition to the politicized philosophical questions, there are the books and the merch in the gift shop. I passed up the T-shirt and notepads, but did avail myself of a $5 refrigerator magnet, to remind myself at least three times a day that in order to retain my sanity I’d better remember to doubt my beliefs.

The Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art, and Sculpture Garden, located on Independence Avenue and 7th Street, is like all Smithsonian museums: free and open to the public every day of the year except Christmas. No rush. This long-term exhibit will be on view at least through 2020.

Other current exhibitions include “Pulse” by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, an interactive exploration of light and shadow, and “Charge” by Mark Bradford Pickett, a long, undulating wall of textures, mostly made from printed paper.

#WashingtonDC #museumexhibitions #HirshhornMuseum #SmithsonianMuseums #BeliefDoubt #politicaldesign #BarbaraKruger