Lawn as a Museum Exhibit?

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The National Building Museum in D.C. has a tradition of installing a “Summer Block Party” exhibit in June, and this year it’s called “Lawn.” So naturally I headed downtown to see what the evil pro-lawn forces are up to this time.

“Lawn” takes up the entire Great Hall with a humongous artificial lawn on an incline and variety of things to do on it – like rolling down that incline, playing croquet, bocce ball or dominoes, and lolling about in a swing while listening to lawn stories told by famous people like Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Venus Williams and Norman Lear. (The transcripts of the stories – “Never before told!” – are here.)

That’s me lolling uncomfortably in one of the hammocks.

(Here’s a video of the exhibit’s installation, with its designer. And a travel photographer reviewed the exhibit in this video.)

Honestly, I had assumed that it was ChemLawn and makers of fake turfgrass who’d paid for this huge ad for their products and services, and I expected to hate it.

Sure enough, Synlawn, the manufacturer of the fake lawn in the exhibit, IS a sponsor, but AARP is the primary one, and ChemLawn was nowhere to be found in the credits.

But it turns out that the artificial turf used here is plant-based! So who knows: maybe an improved synthetic version will be more sustainable than the stuff we walked on as kids.

I also overcame my fear that the famous people’s stories about lawn would encourage Americans to grow even more of it. Instead, I found the stories to be charming remembrances of summers past. Their stories made me see lawn as a space for beloved outdoor activities, not as the much-maligned garden feature it is today.

But perhaps more important in changing my mind was a friend’s mention of the exhibit on Facebook. I followed up with questions and she told me that “We took 2 1/2-year-old [granddaughter] today and we had a great time. We had to go back in several times after leaving for a snack or lunch. It’s just the atmosphere that was appealing…There are speakers all around playing outdoor sounds – dogs, birds, storms etc. It’s just a fun atmosphere.” Okay, I get it!

Anyway, I’m not anti-lawn if the lawn’s being USED for something and maintained intelligently. Neither is well-known lawn activist Paul Tukey, who wrote a whole book about lawn games. Americans could use more of that.

So I’ve overruled my gardening snobbishness and recommended “Lawn” to locals as a fun place for kids. I suggested they make a day of it by combining “Lawn” with an amazing exhibit for museum-goers of all ages – the new Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

Joe Pye Weed with dinosaur of some kind outside the Museum of Natural History

I won’t repeat here my rave review of the Dinosaur Hall but for gardening readers I’ll mention someone I ran into when I visited – Amy Bolton, chair of the American Horticultural Society’s board of directors. Her impressive day job includes being the “lead educator” for this exhibit, which has so much to teach us about climate science, evolution, and our shared “humanity” with other animals that I’ll need several visits to take it all in. .

 

11 COMMENTS

  1. I love this! Wish I could make it out to the exhibit. Maybe it will help visitors pay more attention to lawns outside – think about them as places, rather than a default option. Thanks for the great discussion.

  2. Of course, my first thought was, Can I replace my lawn with this? I don’t use pesticides or fertilizers, nor do I water the grass, so much of it is clover, plantain, wild strawberries, etc. But I do have to keep it mowed, using a riding mower with a polluting engine, and trimmed with an electric trimmer. I like that it is plant based, but how long will it hold up to polar vortexes and heat waves? My weedy lawn inhales CO2, exhales O, and holds the clay soil in place. And how does one dispose of it? I doubt it will compost. So many questions! I’d like to see a post of the pros and cons of artificial turf vs. lawn.

  3. First of all, I’ve been all over DC several times and never knew there was a National Building Museum. How did I miss it?

    The lawn exhibit is just an experiment to see if all the artificial sounds and environment will work as a substitute for the real thing in the future when we can’t go outside.

    But, seriously Susan, thanks for the update on the NEW Dinosaur exhibit. I love the Smithsonian Dinosaur hall and will look forward to visiting again.

  4. Thank you for saying something good about lawns. Really, lawns do offer play space and no where is that more apparent than in rural areas where siblings can play on an open grass. When every maple tree reseeds, mowing the lawn keeps an open space. The view to the road, the driveway is open so you can see who is coming. You can watch your kid ride their bike, views have value. This anti every lawn campaign is just another way to divide people.

  5. I love Garden Rant and Susan Harris, and it’s a treat for me each time I read them. But I don’t understand the hatred for lawns. They are a carbon sink for CO2 and a haven for bugs, beyond being the place that kids go to get outdoors and play. Why not focus more specifically on the lawn chemicals, and not the lawns?

    • Thanks so much, Ellen, and I totally agree that are unnecessarily and unhelpfully demonized. I started a little informational movement called Lawn Reform but quit when it became mostly lawn-bashing.

  6. I view the “hatred” of lawns as a backlash against the status quo. For decades the lawn has been considered the default for the suburbs and now we are realizing it doesn’t have to be! I worked in a garden center for many years and while not everyone dumps chemicals on their lawn, many people do. Chemical fertilizers outsold organic lawn fertilizer by at least 10 to 1. People worried when clover and mushrooms showed up in their lawns. I witnessed a great deal of time and energy being poured into the lawn, when I would wager that much of it (especially front lawns) weren’t even being utilized.

    Every day I walk past lawn that’s been sprayed with pesticides (why? what is the purpose of doing this?) and/or is off limits for use. I can’t go eat lunch on the lawn and grassy areas surrounding my office building. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because it’s just for ornamental purposes, and people using it might cause it to not look “perfect”. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous.

    If your kids and pets use the lawn, then wonderful. Keep it and enjoy it! The backlash is not directed towards you. It is directed to those who would think the only greenery surrounding their homes should be lawn and foundation plantings and who actively try and stop people from having anything else (I’m thinking of HOAs here).

    Let’s be real– front lawns are useless, back lawns are useful. Anywhere I have lived, people do not use their front lawns, because there’s no privacy. But they’re the default, so we dutifully mow and trim and water them. I don’t understand why it’s a bad thing to open up the conversation and encourage people to move beyond lawns and maybe plant some native plants, vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. No one is saying to rip out your entire lawn and install an entire meadow or orchard in it’s place.

    Honestly, this “why is the lawn demonized” mentality is tiring. Lawns have dominated for too long. Many of us are ready to move beyond the 1950s ideal of lawn and ornamental bedding plants. The conversation is opening up to start repairing and changing our home landscapes to be inviting to more than just people.

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