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The Children's Room in the Smithsonian Institution Building

Knowledge Begins in Wonder

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Sources for this exhibit:

"Grace Lincoln Temple and the Smithsonian's Children's Room of 1901," Linda NeCastro, unpublished master's thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1988.

"The Children's Room at the Smithsonian, 1901-1939," Mary McCutcheon, research paper for the Smithsonian Institution Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, 1988.

"The Castle, an Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building," Cynthia R. Field, Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

All material © Smithsonian Institution 2009

The Decorative Design of the Children's Room

For the artistic design of the room, Grace Lincoln Temple, a prominent interior designer, was chosen (fig. 1.). She was one of the first women to work as a decorator of public buildings. To create a bright, cheery environment, Temple chose luminous shades of green to cover the greater portion of the walls, which were sectioned off by gilded moldings. Temple created a unique stencil design for the wall frieze consisting of a graceful parade of stylized birds in bright colors encircling the room just above the cases (fig. 2.). The design was probably inspired by the Celtic pages in the 1856 design sourcebook The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (1809-1874), a well-known advocate of design reform.

The green-and-gold color scheme of the walls was repeated on the ceiling where they were enriched by the addition of intense blues and browns (fig. 3). Langley initially wanted to re-create a ceiling fresco by Correggio that he had seen in Parma, Italy, in which playful cherubs peered down at the viewer through a leafy arbor. However, as an exact copy proved prohibitively expensive, he asked Grace Lincoln Temple to develop a variation of the fresco. Her design called for a fanciful trellis about which were entwined naturalistic grapevines and leaves and on which were perched brilliantly rendered birds against an airy blue sky (figs. 4&5).

fig. 4. Detail of the Children's Room ceiling. fig. 5. Detail of the Children's Room ceiling.

The painted birds on the ceiling were brought to life with live songbirds kept in four gilded cages. Another novelty included in the room to delight visitors was a special kaleidoscope designed by Langley with a triangular tank at the end containing live fish (fig. 6).

Nature was used as a model for the color scheme, which was, in turn, viewed as essential to the fulfillment of the educational goals of the room. Langley felt that if children had a chance to view natural objects in a comfortable environment, their interest would be spontaneous and genuine, and they would be more likely to learn about the wonder of the natural world. Langley's guiding principle thus became his oft-repeated comment, very loosely paraphrased from Aristotle, "knowledge begins in wonder." This phrase eventually became the theme of the room and was painted on the transom above the south entrance. The Children's Room continued to delight its young visitors until 1939, when the space was converted to other uses.

fig. 1. Grace Lincoln Temple at work designing the stencils for the Children's Room.
SI. neg. # 79-13846

fig. 2. Children's Room stenciled wall border designed by Grace Lincoln Temple.

fig. 3. Detail of the Children's Room ceiling.

fig. 6. The Children's Room in 1901.