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The story of the Smithsonian Building's Lower Main Hall reflects the changing relationship of the Institution to the public. Before the building was completed, the hall was envisioned as a public library and a lecture hall. When it was constructed, exhibits filled the space to overflowing. The vast array of natural history specimens drew visitors and students to the National Museum. From this one great room, the museum grew in scope and professionalism to fill three new Smithsonian museum buildings, which were opened in 1881, 1911, and 1964. Each of these buildings initiated a reconsideration of the role of the Smithsonian Buildingâ€™s great space.
With the erection of the first National Museum Building, the exhibition space was divided between curatorial and public functions. The completion of the National Museum of Natural History signaled the change of the hall to a library, with related Graphic Arts exhibits. The hall was cleared in the 1960s, when the Graphic Arts displays were transferred to the newly erected Museum of History and Technology (today known as the National Museum of American History).
When Secretary Leonard Carmichael redefined the role of the museum in Cold War America as that of a public information center, the scene was set for the Lower Main Hall to serve as a focal point for the distribution of museum information. The name Great Hall was embraced during this time, suggesting not only the buildingâ€™s identity as a castle but also its communal function. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s foreign dignitaries and heads of state were ceremoniously received in this richly Victorian space, amid exhibits emphasizing the origins and development of the Smithsonian and the city it inhabits. In the 1980s the Great Hall became the official seat of the Visitor Information and Associatesâ€™ Reception Center, redecorated in a light, inviting color scheme and equipped with the apparatus of an information age. This last transformation concretely defined the Great Hall as the literal and symbolic heart of the Smithsonian.