“Careful what you ask for”, the famous saying goes, “you just might get it!” This time I was careful to ask for a good thing: more museums and galleries, and that’s what I got when visiting Washington DC for a few days!
Washington is full of museums, monuments and galleries. I was there for a conference with a few extra days to stroll and explore around. I had a plan: get up in the morning, have breakfast, pack a light lunch, get on the metro and get off at the heart of it all: the National Mall, a great American public space, which in addition to housing many museums and monuments, is also a beautiful park and reflecting pool and is next to both the Capitol and the White House. This public space is both inviting and intimidating: on the one hand, it seems casual with ordinary folks running to get fit and picnicking and school children walking in colour-coordinated school groups from museum to museum; and on the other hand, you are being surrounded by neo-classical buildings with Roman style facades and some of the most important symbols of power of modern times: the Pentagon, the White House and the US Capitol!
But I was focused on the museums and galleries and so, without further ado, here’s my list of DC’s attractions with personal likes and dislikes:
- National Gallery of Art: A fantastic start, this gallery is a wonderful collection of mostly European art including North America’s only Leonardo da Vinci. The East Building was being renovated when I visited but the underground hallway from the West to the East building was wonderful to walk through.
- National Museum of the American Indian: Housed in a wonderful building, this museum tries to represent the diversity of native people (including the First Nations of Canada). At the time I visited, a fascinating, informative and heart-wrenching (temporary) exhibit on treaties between the US and native tribes was on. But some of the main exhibits were disorienting and over-stimulating. There’s a nice and slightly overpriced cafeteria where you can try native food from different regions of North and South America.
- Hirschhorn Museum: Small museum of contemporary art in a circular building. I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole floor dedicated to a retrospective show of New York-based Shirin Neshat’s work there.
- National Museum of African Art: Small and vibrant museum featuring high-quality art pieces from both contemporary and non-contemporary subsaharan African artists. At the time of my visit, the floor were divided into three themes: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Music and sound was used effectively!
- Sackler Gallery: Small museum of Asian art, I saw an interesting exhibit of drinking cups from ancient Iran here, totally unexpected!
- Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery: These twin museums are usually open past 5:30 (until 7), so I headed to them after all the above museums. Here, there is a nice collection of self-taught art and American popular art commissioned in the 1930’s by Roosevelt’s New Deal movement when a lot of artists were commissioned to make art celebrating the American way of life. There is also a great gallery of American modern art. The Portrait Gallery is also interesting, with galleries dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, and American presidents among others.
- Newsuem: This fascinating museum is the only one I visited that had an entrance fee but it was worth it! With focus on news, journalism and history, this is a fascinating place. Walking through the galleries makes one think of the power of images, words and sounds, the importance and price of freedom of speech and the impact of symbolic acts and objects. Among the many amazing exhibits, there are exhibits dedicated to the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Pulitzer Prize winner photographs and journalists’ memorial. There are probably hundreds of hours of video footage available on events and photographs that can be viewed at interactive stations, including a lot of background stories, so it is easy to get lost in this museum and you have to be selective! A strange thing about it is that like TV news, there is a mix of serious and non-serious material. For example, next to the sombre hall of fallen journalists, there is an exhibit of American presidents’ dogs! This contrast was obnoxious in the beginning but I started to appreciate it later when I felt a break was needed between some of the more intense material. Also, the many school children groups had choices that were not jarring!
- National Museum of American History: I found this museum more geared towards children and youth who were visiting in large school groups when I was there. It was loud, busy and the things on display were all over the place with much text describing them; in short, not really my scene! My favourite exhibit here was the original flag that inspired the US’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
- National Archive: The final place I visited, where there was a mildly interesting exhibit on alcohol prohibition in the 1930’s US.
Finally, I visited several monuments including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, National WWII Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Our visit coincided with Memorial Day, a national holiday to commemorate Americans who have died in battle. This added a certain feeling of being in the centre of US at this day with many people visiting for parades over the long weekend and veterans at the memorial. Of the memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was most touching: A V-shaped black wall with the names of the thousands of American soldiers who died in Vietnam, representing the psychic scar from the war on the nation. It was designed by the (then) 21-year-old Maya Lin in 1980.
I had mixed feelings when visiting these monuments; mixed feelings that were reenforced when visiting the museums and seeing the many perspectives represented (or not) in them. Even within the United States, the world seems a very different place depending on your social, racial, sexual and political stance … but that’s a topic for another time!