Artsy Labor Day

perspective house at National Building Museum

One of my college friends, the same one who went with me to the Hirshhorn, was coming to see me for Labor Day, so I started planning our DC itinerary. I thought of the Fun House at the National Building Museum and the Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery immediately—I had seen so many pictures of my DC friends frolicking in the ball pit at the Fun House or awash in colored light from the Burning Man exhibit (#nospectators). I prioritized the Fun House, since it would close after Labor Day weekend.

I gleefully booked the tickets for the Fun House and asked my friend to get here mid-morning on Saturday. I didn’t want to miss our afternoon time slot if the metro took longer than we expected! I chose a comfortable outfit that I could walk or play in a giant ball pit in: a white t-shirt, light-wash denim shorts, Adidas originals sneakers, and a faded denim shirt (that’s right, double denim strikes again).

Once my friend arrived, we hopped on the metro and headed into the city. We walked the last mile to the National Building Museum and got there with fifteen minutes to spare. The museum has a colossal Great Hall with 75-foot columns and huge skylights, and we could see the Fun House in the middle of the atrium, with the ball pit “pool and hot tub” out back.

After stern instruction from a museum employee to take off our shoes in the pillow fort and turn on our cell phone ringers in case one of us lost a phone in the ball pit, we were in! Some parts of the house were for display, like the room where everything was broken or the hallway with shoes on the ceiling. Most were experiential, though, like the Styrofoam cave we climbed through to get from one room to another or the room that was full of car wash-style streamers.

Behind the house, we waited in line for the perspective house, a tiny shed with mirrors to make it look like an infinite hallway. We took our turn in the perspective house and then headed for the “pool.” The ball pit was about three feet deep, but it was surprisingly difficult to walk through. Most people were “swimming” through instead of walking around. I hadn’t expected to see a lot of kids at the National Building Museum, but there were a ton in the Fun House, especially in the ball pit.

ball pit at the fun house

After we had fallen backward into the ball pit enough times, we decided to check out a few of the other exhibits. One of them, about flexible housing, was almost as interactive as the Fun House. It was designed to showcase apartments that would use every available inch of space, and it was like Ikea on steroids—beds folded up into walls, cabinets opened to become kitchens, and ironing boards tucked into pocket doors.

It wasn’t too late to explore another museum before the afternoon was over, so we got museum cafe cookies and looked at our options nearby. My friend asked if I was interested in the Burning Man exhibit, which she had heard good things about, and I agreed instantly. We stayed at the National Building Museum a few more minutes to wait out an unexpected rainstorm, then set out into the sunshine.

We got to the Renwick Gallery with plenty of time to see the exhibit before closing. Participants in the Burning Man Festival had created the art on display, which ranged from a massive décolletage paper tree at the entrance to six-foot mechanical mushrooms that opened and closed slowly while changing color. I didn’t know much about Burning Man before I went to the exhibit, and I loved how the whimsical the art was. We moved through the gallery slowly, absorbing the atmosphere of each piece. My favorite room was the cathedral, a huge room with delicate wood carvings covering the walls and ceiling. Since it was the Saturday of a holiday weekend, the exhibit was as packed as the Fun House, although there were fewer children at the Renwick.

We emerged from the dark Renwick Gallery and walked back to our metro stop, passing the White House shining in the late afternoon sun and many people zipping by on electric scooters. Both of us couldn’t stop talking about the crazy, immersive art we had seen that day—although I had been looking forward to the Fun House more, I ended up really liking the Burning Man exhibit. It was a little less participatory than the Fun House but much more immersive (something about the smell of sweaty feet really brings you out of the moment).

Did you go see either of these exhibits? Do you have a favorite art museum in DC? Let me know in the comments!

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