Detail of the original stenciled pattern on the Hall end with traces of modern paint along the edges, 2011The plaster walls within the Smithsonian National Museum interior were originally painted in a light yellowish-gray sand color, considered by many at the time (and for years afterward) to be the ideal shade for museum walls. Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, published in 1918 and quoting an earlier German publication, stated: “[sand color] has the advantage over a white background that it is not blinding, does not tire the eye by reflecting the light too strongly…. [and] does not… disturb the pure and full perception of the exhibited objects.” The walls contained exposed grains of sand, and were finished with lines painted with black oil paint to imitate stone masonry. These black lines have since been covered with layers of paint.

Neutral, Flattering Shades

Though no longer exclusively sand colored, the plaster walls and ceilings in Washington’s AIB still retain a light paint color scheme. The Rotunda and the North Hall walls are painted with a yellowish color, which is contrasted on the lower three feet of the Rotunda walls with a brownish hue. In the other halls, the walls under the galleries are painted white or a light color, with the second floor walls painted in a yellowish hue, similar to the surfaces in the North Hall. The wainscot paneling in the exhibit spaces, originally painted a dark grayish red, was modified shortly thereafter to a slightly lighter shade; columns and capitals within the galleries are highlighted with accent colors. The range walls are, for the most part, painted one color. Original example of the pencil lines that demarcate stone blocks along with the original neutral color of the sand finished plaster still remain in places.

Original wall details of plaster with a sand finish with black "pencil" lines to depict stone blocks, 2011; Photo by Martin Stupich