I’m embarrassed to say it, but I dig DC. Close to collecting social security but I have to say it is a hip city. Restaurants are top quality and there is a buzz around most of the city that may be the result of the current administration, or it may have been there all along, just blanketed in a political and social quagmire. Maybe those young interns from conservative colleges were not the most devil-may-care bunch. Perhaps it was an exceptionally mild summer weekend that was the reason for the spirit, but I suspect it was a bit more than that. There is a distinction between the “United States” and “America.” “America” is a concept, a dream and a hope for much of the world that might have been clouded and obscured for a bit, maybe the last eight years. But enough political rant, the business of travel is to learn and DC is a living civics lesson.
Most of the museums of the world are reasonably adamant in their refusal to allow photography, which is why I felt my head spinning as I entered federal building after building and was told both it was free and photography was no problem. The only building that declined was the Library of Congress, but even here is a silver lining worth digressing. I asked if I could enter the main floor and view the main reading room from the ground. The response was all I need to obtain was a library card. I am a citizen of this country and I was given free rein in these buildings—VERY COOL. There are some rules: when Congress is in session you need to apply to your representative or Senator for a gallery pass, but everyone seemed to bend over backwards to make you feel you belonged and were welcome. There is a sense of common ownership. Dare I say democracy and even pride? Some tips around town might be good to remember. If you want to visit the capitol building, enter from the Library of Congress tunnel and avoid a long congested line, although the tour of the capitol itself leaves one debating about the worth of the time spent here. Next to the Capitol is the National Arboretum, depending on the time of day, a possible respite. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit, especially around lunchtime. The food court is excellent with meals offered by regional tribes from all over the country. The restaurants on the mall are generally good quality at decent prices so you won’t go too far wrong. The one exception is the “Natural” food carts around the entrances. These are green and white to feign environmentally, healthy meals…but the fare is ordinary hot dogs, chips and soft drinks—a very far cry from the healthy food within any of the Smithsonian institutions.
There is a plethora of museums, so it pays to spend a few days and pace yourself. The best hotels are those located near the mall. You will exhaust yourself, so stay close, although the metro is a convenience that allows you to stay father out at a corresponding lower price. Weekend nights are prone to very elaborate groups of riders from visiting marines to multi-ethnic drag queens on their way to Dupont circle. Every evening seemed to be an underground Broadway musical. No train was silent, and each boasted a themed group of eclectics with locals rolling their eyes.
Museums? Nowhere else is there such a diverse and imposing collection in density and importance. Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn, Spy Museum, the Mint…they seem to satisfy every curiosity and appetite. The American Museum is where to see Lincoln’s hat, Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia child’s kitchen but my heart belongs, correct that, belonged to the Museum of Natural History. Until recently–
The American dioramas were the creation of Carl Ackley. First unveiled in 1936, the African mammals were spectacular studies of the animal within its environment. New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, these three-dimensional worlds formed the heart of exotic memories for at least four generations. The dioramas resonated with meaning as the animals seemed completely real and at home in their setting, yet undisturbed by the presence of an endless parade of visitors, many elementary school-children with no access to these worlds the specimens inhabited. At most, a musk ox or a cougar would seem to sniff the wind at the presence of warm milk on the breath of young children on the other side of the glass. The animal within the environment was a distinct break in the history of taxidermy and display. From the world of cabinet of curiosities, to that of quantity as quality in the age of discovery, to a pre-Discovery Channel generation of showing the interaction of fauna with flora, these displays were the highlight of generations for the past 70 years. Now with many specimens in need of repair and a world exposed to television, Planet Earth, and Night at the Museum, the Museum of Natural History has remodeled its African Mammal hall so that it is devoid of the romantic panoramas that defined an exotic landscape for several generations of museum visitors. The photographs of Richard Ross, taken in 1977 and originally published in Museology (Aperture, NY 1989) and Gathering Light (2000) form a rich framing for a contemporary look at how we view the animal within, or now in the cases of Washington D.C. and San Diego, devoid, of a contextual landscape. A current world may be looking more at images within environment in the arena of a computer and filmic world, but as we enter a world of computer visualization, a sense of loss for these historical displays must be noted. Here when a child stood with his nose to the window with a lioness and her cubs on the opposite side, there was a sense of wonder and awe. This is spoken with first hand experience–I was that child.