Wednesday, May 25, 2011

DC Museums and Memorials: DAY TWO

See the companion stories "Walking Our Way Through DC: DAY ONE" posted on 5/21/2011 and "Arlington Cemetery and Some DC Culture: DAY THREE" posted on 5/28/2011

Neil and Eric are still talking about their DC trip and I'm still listening.  

National Mall with
the Washington Monument

      Legs and feet rested, thanks to some Advil®, we started our tour from the Smithsonian Metro station located conveniently in the center of the Mall.  
Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History
The Hope Diamond
We headed for the National Museum of Natural History. Just like its name, it encompasses almost anything to do with nature in our universe.  Dale wanted to see the Hope diamond (we had an interest also), on view after an online vote to select a new mounting design.  It's a much better display than in previous visits and the current setting, "Embracing Hope", is definitely a winner.  Don't miss the rest of the gem exhibits that flow through several rooms.  That was our only interest for this visit, but there are numerous archeological finds in this popular museum. 

      Next door is the National Museum of American History.  Another of the Smithsonian Institutions museums, there's everything from Kermit the Frog to Abraham Lincoln.  It's my favorite because everywhere you turn, there's something familiar to our American culture.  

      We started with the First Ladies' Gowns, a newly designed exhibit that not only showcases the designs worn to the Inaugural Balls but also gowns, accessories, artwork, and mementos from other cultural events.  It's a walk through history via fashions of the times.  The showcases now allow for up close viewings showing off the couture details. It's a wonderful tribute to the First Ladies but in some cases you'll leave wondering, "What were they thinking wearing that?"      

Michelle Obama's Inaugural Ball Gown
      There's a small and powerful exhibit simply titled "1939".  It was one of those years (in this case the Great Depression and a looming World War) when everything seemed to come together leaving a lasting impression on history.  Entertainment is represented with
the ruby slippers (dull and poorly lit) and an original script from "The Wizard of Oz", as well as Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy.  Technology is imagined through "The World of Tomorrow" at the New York World's Fair.  The Arts were stirred by the formation of the WPA and civil rights with Marion Anderson performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It's one punchy display that will leave you begging for more.

The Ruby Slippers from "The Wizard of Oz"

Charlie McCarthy, Sidekick
for Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen

      "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" celebrates the 200th anniversary of his birth.  It gives an intimate look at how history shaped his life and visa versa.  The displays are solemn and silence is the word here.  You'll leave with a feeling that you now know a lot more about him physically, mentally, and historically.  The facial images of him (spanning his adult years) at the end of the exhibit will impress upon you the toll of his historical policies and decisions.

Entrance to Abraham Lincoln:An Extraordinary Life
      Other permanent exhibits we found worthwhile were "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" and the "National Treasures of Popular Culture", along with the temporary "Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn" highlighting the pop-up book through the years.  But the one that really shared a way of life was "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian".  Her original kitchen from her Cambridge, MA home has been reconstructed down to the finest detail.  Even her Yellow Pages are on the bookshelf!  It's a rare view into the world of someone so influential in our everyday lives.

Julia Child's Reconstructed Kitchen
      We left the museum on the Constitution Avenue side full of information and short on energy.  Strolling up 15th St., we were headed to Old Ebbitt Grill for a late lunch, a popular haunt for political insiders and journalists (see our future review).  From there we switched our plans a bit and took the Metro to the Judiciary Square station, which landed us directly in front of the National Building Museum.  Originally, the building served the dual purposes of housing the Pension Bureau and providing a space for social and political functions.  This is the place where "Christmas in Washington" is telecast from so the interior was familiar to us.  Eric was most interested in the "LEGO® Architecture: Towering Ambition" special exhibit (through September 5, 2011).  This is Adam Reed Tucker's vision of 15 buildings from around the world all constructed of LEGO® bricks ranging in the thousands and towering in excess of 14 ft.  Included is an ongoing construction of the White House by Tucker onsite, as well as a play area and mini LEGO® store.  Another special area was "Designing Tomorrow", a look at the architecture and designs that were inspired by America's World's Fairs of the 1930's.  I found it to cover the subject extensively and give much deserved credit to six American cities that hosted these exhibitions.  

Towering Interior of the National Building Museum
LEGO® Architecture:
Towering Ambitions

      It's closing time and it's raining.  We decided to wait a while for our short walk to the National Portrait Gallery located adjacent to the Verizon Center.  This was a dicey area when I last visited in the late 80's, so it was good to see a resurgence of such a prime location.  Upon entering the gallery, we were issued plastic bags to contain the moisture from our umbrellas, a thoughtful touch that more museums should think about.  The Portrait Gallery is a beautiful Greek Revival structure with a covered courtyard for resting and refueling at the museum cafe.  The museum is also open until 7 p.m. everyday (except Christmas) allowing for visits after most of the other museums have closed.

Atrium Spanning the National Portrait Gallery
      We were there for three special exhibits and highlights of the permanent collection.  We walked down the corridor filled with "Americans Now" exhibit of mostly entertainment and sports celebrities.  Familiar faces are cause for pause.  In a small room was "One Life: Katherine Graham", an intimate display from her personal collection of Washington Post memorabilia, parties, awards, and...portraits.  The one by Richard Avedon is especially compelling and eerie.  Moving on to "Calder's Portraits: A New Language" we found a humorous look at famous people mostly through 3-dimensional wire sculptures.  The paintings and drawings were less inspirational.  In the end, we felt that Calder's mobiles were far more priceless.  "Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections" is a look into the private lives of prominent Washingtonians.  The temporary exhibit represents a range of styles from 1750 to the present.  We felt "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver" by David Lenz to be particularly moving and reflective of her life's passion for the Special Olympics.  As for contemporary portraiture, the likes of Chuck Close and Kehinde Wiley are hard to beat.  The final gallery was the permanent "American Presidents" with portraits of many of the presidents and all of the modern ones.  There are many "behind the scenes" stories...Lyndon Johnson hated his...Richard Nixon is the only one honored through photography.  For us, the Chuck Close portrait of Bill Clinton was the clear star.  It realizes how he departmentalized everything in his life and as you get closer, it becomes more complex and disturbing.

Jimmy Durante
by Alexander Calder

Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, with the Two Bush Presidents

      The sun was out and we boarded the Metro for McPherson Square station and a short walk to the White House.  As we approached Lafayette Square, we were suddenly halted by several police officers in squad cars and on motorcycles.  My first thought...the President was coming!  Sure enough, the White House gates opened and we were in the middle of a motorcade.  Eric said he would be in the second car so we focused on that one and saw his silhouette waving toward us and then turning to the person next to him.  It was a serendipitous event that our reconstructed itinerary from earlier in the day had impacted.  Our energy suddenly excelled and we walked over to the front entrance to the familiar residence.  The crowd was swelling and the diversity of cultures was quite apparent.  We weren't really hungry so we decided to walk to the south lawn of the White House.  Another crowd.  

President Obama's Motorcade Near the White House
Front Lawn of the White House
      We took a short break on the Ellipse before tackling the Mall and the monuments.  It was approaching dusk so we headed to the Vietnam Memorial complex made up of the Soldiers’ Statue, Women's Memorial, and Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin.  As with the war itself, controversy clouded the Memorial Wall giving way to the two statues being added. Even with the crowds, emotions are high.  It's the one memorial that seems most relevant to today.

Vietnam Memorial Wall
Vietnam Soldiers' Statue

      We had been warned of the reconstruction of the Reflecting Pool.  Let’s just say it's a mess and will continue to be that way for another two years.  Turning to our right was the Lincoln Memorial, unaffected by the distraction.  The steps and interior were covered with visitors.  The signs stated "Silence Please" though the group was anything but.  This grand structure, and the man and historical period it remembers, deserved better manners.  Along with the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial, this is one that should not be overlooked.

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Presides Over the National Mall
      Moving to the right, we follow the signs to the Korean War Memorial.  This is one that is best viewed from dusk into darkness.  The stainless steel sculptures convincingly convey the effects of a severe climate during war.  The soldiers’ garb and facial expressions are gut wrenching as they watch over the granite wall of faces portraying the land, sea, and air troops.  The United Nations Wall lists the 22 countries that contributed to the war effort.  Unfortunately, the Pool of Remembrance has currently hit a malfunction.

Korean War Memorial
      It's late and our last stop takes us along Independence Avenue to the newest memorial on the Mall, the National World War II Memorial, and the only 20th century event commemorated there.  Eric had been told that we should visit here at night but we felt the lighting was too low to thoroughly appreciate the design.  The Memorial is actually a plaza, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by 56 granite pillars representing the U.S. states and territories.  On each side is an arch for the Atlantic and Pacific theaters separated by a pool with fountains.  Scenes from the war are pictured on bas reliefs as you approach from the east.  On the west side is the Freedom Wall of 4,048 gold stars each representing 100 Americans who died.  There has been plenty of criticism of the design, but this was an overwhelming war portrayed in a massive plaza with room to reflect and contemplate.

Pacific Theater Arch Entrance to the World War II Memorial
World War II Memorial Plaza
      Our change in itinerary didn't allow for dinner so we headed to the Metro and stopped in Alexandria at the King Street station for a late night bite at Joe Theismann's Restaurant.  One more stop to our hotel and we called it one long day!

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