Last week, Howard was attending a conference in Washington DC. I took the opportunity to tag along and play tourist in my home city. I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of DC, but now, when I visit my family, we never seem to venture into the city to museum hop or tour other sites. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with DC.
I covered a lot of territory in four days. At the end of each day, when I reviewed my day with Howard, he remarked it was a perfect arrangement. I was doing exactly what I wanted at my pace, and he didn’t have to accompany me. It was a win-win situation.
My top three favorites stops (in no particular order) were:
- Library of Congress: I had never visited before. The Thomas Jefferson building was a marvel in decorative arts. My jaw dropped just walking into the Great Hall. The library was built between 1888 and 1897, in the Italian Renaissance style, mostly from stone and metal to limit the risk of fire. The architect in charge hired 50 American artists, many discovered at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (the Columbian Exhibition), to adorn the library’s interior. Every surface is carved or painted with every sort of symbolism to honor knowledge, printing, the arts, and the burgeoning nation.
- Tour of NPR studios: I’m a public radio junkie. I know this tour might not be for everyone, but for me, it was a thrill. The tour guide showed us a little bit of everything: some studios, the library, the tape storage room. She had arranged for people in different areas to explain their jobs. So much goes into making the programming come together on a daily basis. It was a little weird when I recognized names on cubicles, having heard various producers’ names read for years at the end of my favorite shows.
- Whistler’s Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art: This one room is a must see. An entire room, originally serving as a dining room, was decorated by James McNeil Whistler for the British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Charles Lang Freer purchased the room after Mr. Leyland rejected Whistler’s design. The room is installed as part of the Freer Gallery. The colors, shades of blue and green and gold cover every surface. The walls, the shelves, the ceiling, the fireplace, and the doors all ornately imitate peacock feathers. In its current installation, just opened in April 2011, the shelves are covered with Mr. Freer’s own ceramics collection. Nearby rooms house an extensive collection of Whistler paintings.
Other highlights included:
- A quiet early morning stroll through the monuments
- There were several that were constructed since the last time I was in that area. New to me were the World War II Memorial, the reflective FDR Memorial on Tidal Basin, and, most moving of all, the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
- I also stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and visited the name of Tommy E. Gist. I never met him, but in high school, his name was on the POW bracelet I wore. I continue to remember him.
- Museum of the American Indian:
- This is the newest Smithsonian museum on The Mall, opened in 2004. The museum explores the cultural heritage of the indigenous people of the Americas: North, Central and South. Multimedia exhibits incorporate the display of traditional objects, like clothing, jewelry, and cooking implements, with videos about the lives of Native Americans today. All the exhibits have been created with active participation by curators representing the people presented. The diversity across the many tribes from the broad geography covered was fascinating. The undercurrent of the political message was a little strong, but it remaining balanced, increasing my awareness as a visitor, but not ruining the experience.
- A highlight of this museum is the cafeteria Mitsitam, which means “Let’s Eat” in one Native American language. My dad exclaimed “This is exciting!” as we browsed the offerings for lunch. Selections represent five different regional foodways, mixing authentic Native foods with more familiar dishes with a Native American twist.
- Renwick Gallery:
- This museum holds a renowned collection of American craft, mostly contemporary. I particularly enjoyed the special show, History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011, which featured the work of four craft artists: a furnituremaker (Matthias Pliessnig), a silversmith (Ubaldo Vitali), a stained glass artist (Judith Schaechter), and a ceramicist (Cliff Lee).
- From the permanent collection, there were a few standouts:
- Karen LaMonte’s Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery The woman inside this glass dress has vanished, but the dress continues to drape her shape as it casually lies on its side on the pedestal.
- Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock This life-sized sculpture appears to be a clock covered with a sheet, but it’s just an illusion. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the piece is carved from a single block of wood.
- Larry Fuente’s Game Fish This piece resembles a trophy fish that might be hung over the mantel, but the fish is covered with all manner of colorful game pieces, including dice, pawns, dominoes, dolls, tiles and blocks.
- National Museum of American History
- This museum was a trip down memory lane. When I was a kid, it was called the Museum of History and Technology. Though it was renovated in 2008, the collection is still filled with old friends. I revisited my favorites: the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs, Faith Bradford’s doll house, the First Ladies’ dresses, and, a newer addition, Julia Child’s kitchen.
- Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
- Connected to the Freer Gallery by an underground passage, the Sackler specializes in Asian art. I saw a special exhibit, now closed, called Waves at Matsushima, a tribute to the beautiful Japanese coastal landscape just north of the region damaged by the recent tsunami. A variety of contrasting images were on display, both artistic images and objects depicting the area’s beauty and photographs of the destruction.
- National Gallery of Art
- This museum offered a cool and peaceful respite from the heat and crowds. I visited twice during the week. My first visit was the only joint museum visit with Howard. We admired a special exhibit of the Chester Dale collection, an amazing collection of paintings spanning the Impressionists through Modern artists. Some were treasures I remember from childhood visits, but many I had never seen in person before.
- The larger-than-life Capitoline Venus, on a special loan from Rome, was also on view.
- I also tracked down an unlikely favorite from childhood, the 15th century Dutch painting, Mary, Queen of Heavens. I loved the vibrant colors of this painting, and after all these years, it still charmed me.
- The Capitol
- I was able to get a nearly immediate ticket to tour the highlights of the Capitol. The last time I was here was probably on a school trip. It was still familiar and inspiring. I enjoyed checking out each state’s contribution to the statuary collection, and the paintings around the rotunda, both in the ceiling, and my childhood favorite depicting the marriage of Pocahantas. The secret of the Whispering room, where the physics of the room make it possible for one to hear whispering across the room, including on the spot where John Adams used to sit, still made me smile.
- The Supreme Court
- The Court wasn’t in session, but I watched an educational documentary about the court, and saw the courtroom. Surprisingly, it was smaller than courtrooms I’ve sat in on jury duty.
- What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam at the National Archives
- We didn’t wait in the long line to see our nation’s fundamental documents, but we did wander through an exhibit about the government’s influence on American’s eating. The exhibit seemed to focus on the early 20th century, in the areas of food safety, as populations moved away from rural settings where people were able to raise or grow their own food to cities where they were depending on unknown, often adulterated, sources for food, and nutrition in a time when food shortages and rationing meant that people often couldn’t get enough to eat. Also included were more contemporary issues in trying to increase awareness about the growing obesity problem in our country.
- National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum
- These two Smithsonian museums share space in the original U.S. Patent office.
- From the Portrait gallery, my favorite was Shepard Fairey’s iconic Barack Obama poster from the 2008 campaign. I had always thought the background were solid colors, so, up close, I found the collage of newspapers and vintage decorative papers that make up the background surprising.
- Standouts from the American Art Museum where Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ haunting sculpture, Adams Memorial, and a spectaular pair of stained glass windows, John La Farge’s Peacocks and Peonies.
- National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
- The afternoon that Howard and I walked around together, we happened on this sculpture garden serendipitously. We were trying to escape the massive crowd at the Museum of Natural History where it seemed that every tourist in DC under the age of 18 and their entire family was located. The sculptures were modern, which could go either way in terms of appeal. There were several that we enjoyed, particularly the creepiness of Louise Bourgeois’ Spider, the optical illusion of Roy Lichtenstein’s House, and the Roxy Paine’s sleek metal tree.
No vacation is complete without food. If you’ve made it this far, I’ll tell you about the best places we ate.
- Jaleo is a tapas restaurant owned by Jose Andres. We’ve been getting more into tapas lately. There are always so many choices, and it’s hard to get enough variety to be satisfied with only two diners at the table. All the little dishes we picked were delicious, some more than others. Our favorites were the Trucha a la Navarra (seared trout wrapped in Serrano ham) and the Buñuelos de bacalao (fried salt cod fritters with honey alioli). For dessert, we ordered a cheese plate with 6 different kinds of Spanish cheese. Except for the manchego, they were all new to us.
- Georgia Brown’s was another vibrant, happening place. The food was Southern with a twist. We enjoyed Deviled Eggs, Deconstructed Jambalaya, and Jumbo Shrimp stuffed with Crabcake. No room for dessert.
- Addies in Rockville, is located in a early 20th century bungalow (my favorite kind of house) set back from the busiest thoroughfare in town. I met my sister and some family friends for a relaxed “Ladies Lunch”.
- Two cafes for lunch (or breakfast). Both are chains in the DC area (and NYC). We shared breakfasts and one lunch at Pret a Manger. I also had a solo lunch at Le Pain Quotidien. I wish both would open in Boston.
The trip ended with a weekend with my sister’s Jane’s family in the Maryland ex-urbs (i.e. country, beyond the suburbs). It was a great week, but it is really nice to be home.