Washington Thoughts… About Washington, DC, That Is, Not the State or Statesman.

It’s my fourth day here in the greater Washington, DC area, and it’s been a good visit. This isn’t my first time in the nation’s capital, but I haven’t been here since then, very nearly eleven years ago now. Things haven’t really changed too much, as one might expect in a city where many of the touristy sorts of buildings are over 150 years old, but it’s surprising how much has changed.

There was no World War II memorial on the National Mall back in 2001, so that was something totally new to see the other day. The museums have shifted around a bit: the first full day we were here, we visited the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum out by Dulles airport, and that was an entirely new museum that didn’t exist ten years ago. The regular Air & Space Museum on the National Mall actually seemed about the same, although I saw many new things that I either missed or didn’t remember from last time.

It’s too bad that our space program hasn’t been more active in that regard. Since 2001, it seems like the only projects to really capture the public imagination have been a few Mars landers. Which, of course, is no small feat– it’s just a little hard to have many exhibits about stuff that’s stranded on other planets. Still, it seems like most of the effort of the last 10 years has been devoted to detecting new rays from various celestial bodies, which is important and all, but a little less engaging for buses of school kids.

What has happened took place a few months after my last visit, and has had ripple effects visible just about everywhere. The terrorist attacks of 2001 have precipitated all sorts of adjustments to life in the buildings around the National Mall. I remember just strolling into the museums wondering why there wasn’t anyone around to take tickets or anything, but there was no such sense of “openness” this time. All of the museums we’ve visited so far have had bag inspections… not nearly as invasive as visiting the airport, but nevertheless, someone looks into your bag. The busier museums even had metal detectors and electro-X-ray-majiggers, but still, not as bad as the airport. So, basically don’t take anything to a Smithsonian that you can’t carry onto an airplane. And that’s reality in this day and age– I understand that. I can be very critical of elevated security and invasive searches, but this is actually a very reasonable amount of security that I can encounter without fuss.

But, back to the museums– I’m pretty sure the Natural History Museum has been totally revamped from the first time I saw it. I think a lot of the mammal hall has been dramatically updated in the last few years, as well as the Ocean hall. There’s a new gianter Giant Squid, and they’ve been moved from a hidden alcove upstairs (if I remember correctly) to the main floor in the Ocean room. They’ve even made them one of them even more like the preserved aliens from Independence Day by suspending one of them upright in its tank, making them both creepy and awesome at the same time. I’m not sure if the Gems & Minerals hall is the same, but I’m almost certain the Dinosaur hall is. And they may have added an atrium food-court sort of area… or I might have just totally missed that last time.

I was also able to visit two completely new museums too– we went to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, as well as the Hirshhorn Art Museum. Between visiting the Tate Modern in London a few months ago, and the Kröller-Müller in the Netherlands before that, Lorie and I have been able to visit some pretty nice museums this past year! We were only in the East building for about half an hour, though– not nearly enough time to see it all, or really do justice to what we did see. I’ll definitely have to get back to the west building at some point in the future. Tomorrow will be our last day in town, so I don’t know if we’ll get back downtown again on this visit, but the West building is the one that has all of the “old” art in it– the stuff that we’re all more likely to recognize than the contemporary and modern art found in the East building.

How did I like the museums? Well, they seemed alright, but, as at the Kröller-Müller, I was looking at things as an artist, not as a consumer, which puts me in a weird in-between perspective. I know enough about art to do some back-of-the-envelope interpretations about what things are “about” and what they might “mean” (if such terms are even applicable), but I also don’t know enough to go gaga over something just because it was by so-and-so. The art museums make me really wish I actually lived in Washington, DC, or at least close enough to visit regularly. It would be nice to spend time with these paintings (and sculptures, drawings, etc.) and see which ones speak to me most, and keep drawing me back. Would it be the “hits” that they put in all of the guides, or would it be the B-sides of the museum, tucked away in less visited corners? And maybe I just need some time to process, since I get that “drinking from the firehose” feeling after a while in a museum. Months away from the Kröller-Müller, I still find myself thinking of much of the work I saw there– though of course I’m a little biased now by not remembering what I’ve forgotten, so a similar effect will probably come over time with the museums of the last couple days.

So, having been to Washington, DC a second time, I still have plenty of reason to come back. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the museums, and I wasn’t able to get to the National Museum of the American Indian, so I’ll have to make that a top priority for next time. I saw actually saw the interior of the Capitol today (merely seen from the outside last time), but by and large, we’ve barely visited the monuments and Big Important Buildings around town. Nor have I visited the White House, so if any of my readers have connections to the Executive branch of our government, you should know that I clean up real nice for state dinners and other important occasions, hint hint.

And this keeps making me think that I need to get back to New York, too, since it’s been almost as long since I’ve been there. There’s a ton of great museums there too (nearly all of which I didn’t visit), but I understand they’re a little more expensive to get into visit, so I’ll have to do more research for this hypothetical future-someday visit to prioritize.

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