IF YOU KNOW your clichés, your Titanic trivia or your Freud, then this is nothing new: What you see is only the tip of the iceberg.
In its summer installation, “Icebergs,” the National Building Museum maps out the metaphor for visitors, with a cube of blue netting that transforms the main hall into a suspended slice of a glacial sea. The aforementioned icy tips poke out above the “surface,” while visitors can enter the hidden depths and walk among the submerged giants. In the simmering, soggy heat of Washington summers, just hearing the word ice was enough to convince me I should pay a visit.
Designed by James Corner Field Operations, the installation is the first thing you see walking through the museum door. Through the wall of blue netting you can make out the hulking white pyramids that form the titular icebergs. Some icebergs float in midair and extend downward, while others sit on the ground and soar up beyond the blue net ceiling. The effect is something like a stalagmite/stalactite situation (but don’t ask me to tell you which is which). The ‘bergs themselves are made out of jointed triangles of white plastic, resulting in repeating geometric patterns with a decidedly unnatural feel. But while the structures may not match the real thing in terms of wild, organic beauty, they convey their own sense of a wonder that was undeniably cool, in both senses of the word. Especially if you look up and notice the contrast between these modern, industrial forms and the classical arches and columns of the museum visible through the blue netting.
It absolutely succeeds in terms of pure visual impact, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a bigger picture I couldn’t quite grasp. There is some echo of concern with ocean pollution and warming oceans, some whisper of a statement on natural versus manmade forms and duplicating patterns in architecture. But if there was supposed to be a larger cerebral impact, I missed it. In the defense of the ‘bergs, there is nothing wrong with an installation being a glorified play pit, but “Icebergs” fell just a little short of the mark. In truth, like installations in most museums, there’s just not much to do but look.
There are two interactive parts. One is a hollow ‘berg lit up in cool tones that visitors can walk through—a cool photo-op. Most of the activity is centered on the biggest iceberg in the room. Those willing to wait out the line (upward of 20 minutes at peak times, but I was told it gets shorter as people clear out later in the evening) could climb the tallest iceberg and snap a pic of the view from the top, then hop on a slide for an express trip down a slide of average playground variety. A fun trip up and down, but not enough to satisfy kids (or adults) for long.
At its core, “Icebergs” just can’t match the stunning popularity of last summer’s installation, “The Beach,” a glorified ball pit that for some reason was assumed to be cleaner than the ones at Chucky Cheese. “Icebergs” has a few more weeks to prove if it can compete (it closes September 5).
The Wednesday Late Nights, one of which I attended, provide food vendors and performances. And admission ($16 for non members) includes full access to the museum, even during the after-hours event. (Check out “Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse,” also on the first floor. It’s a delightful and only-sometimes-creepy collection of fully furnished dollhouses tracing societal and architectural themes through the last 300 years.) And as a hangout spot or meeting place, the blue cube holds up just fine. Plenty of folks were seen wandering, eating or lounging on the white beanbags scattered around the floor. It’s just that the installation doesn’t quite cut it as an activity in and of itself.
I did see a photo on Instagram posted by a friend the day after I went. This is probably a good sign, considering that the success of “The Beach” seemed linked to its presence on social media newsfeeds. So “Icebergs” may pick up where “The Beach” left off in terms of social media. In terms of the real world, though, unless I’m mistaken, icebergs in the Arctic don’t come emblazoned with the National Building Museum’s Instagram and Twitter handles.
Emily Harburg is an intern at MyLittleBird. She last wrote about the “She Who Tells a Story” exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Icebergs, through September 5 at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, 202-272-2448; open Monday through Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sundays 11am to 5pm, Wednesday Late Nights, 6 to 10pm. Check the museum website for Ward Day admittance, free admission for D.C. residents on specific ward dates.