The best museum exhibits mix delight, education and provocation so subtly that the visitor isn’t aware where one bleeds into another. The National Building Museum’s new long-term display, “House & Home,” explores a subject so wide and so fundamental to American life that it inevitably touches the pleasure buttons of nostalgia.
There are places where one wishes the stress were different, especially the environmental costs of building a society premised on homeownership and low-density population dispersion. But the curators have managed to tell a complicated story clearly and engagingly. And they haven’t neglected complex questions about how race, gender and government policy have affected the physical structures we live in and the sentimental structures that nourish us.
The exhibition has been in the works since 1995. During that long gestation came the great economic crisis of 2008, spurred, in part, by risky mortgage lending, which had a tremendous impact on the housing sector. The curators have taken note of the events, with a timeline that marks a 32 percent jump in foreclosures between April 2008 and April 2009, and the devastation of boomtown developments across the country. A photograph of the Foreclosure Express, a bus that shuttled prospective bargain-hunters around the decimated suburbs of Las Vegas, is a painful late chapter in this more than 200-year odyssey.