Friday, August 04, 2006

A Washington Museum Marathon

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Leaving North Carolina via evil Interstate 95, I headed north for New York and New Jersey, stopping for two days in Washington, D.C. To plagiarize an undisclosed member of my family, “Washington is actually a suburb masquerading as a city”. This observation goes a long way to explain why the nation’s capital is both a pleasant place to live and a pleasant place to visit.

But the prime reason to organise a stop off in Washington is to see the vast and spectacular collections of the 18 institutions which comprise the Smithsonian National Museums, most of which are both free and within walking distance of each other. I know of no other place in the world where you can see and learn about more things with greater ease, for less money, than on the Mall in Washington. And it’s not just paintings and sculpture. Included in the Smithsonian club are the American Indian Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Postal Museum, the Zoo and the American History Museum.

Of course, in any ointment there is a fly and the fly on the Mall is crowds. It’s understandable given what’s on offer and all free, but these really are not like the crowds that you find in congested “old” Europe (maybe the goofiest thing Donald Rumsfeld has ever said), because, like many things American, the place is huge, insuring that a preposterous number of people can be absorbed before things begin to feel crowded. While some of the museums such as Air and Space can be quite crowded, a number of superb museums, such as the Freer and the Sackler Gallery, can seem all but deserted.

During my visit to D.C., I spent a whole day in the museums on the Mall, seeing three first class special exhibitions, one brand new museum and two collections in the newly refurbished National Historic Landmark which Walt Whitman once described as the noblest building in Washington.

I started my museum marathon at the Freer Gallery of Art which has major Asian and American holdings. The museum is cool, serene, with a lovely centre courtyard and filled with much appreciated curatorial touches such as the ample provision of magnifying glasses for the Asian works with tiny details. The Japanese collection has the largest holding of Hokusai in the world. Whistler’s Peacock Room is beyond fabulous, as are the other 70 oil paintings Freer bought from Whistler for his collection. Don’t miss the exciting gift shop at the Sackler which has everything from fabulous origami kits to Shangai Tang clothing and accessories.

One of the best aspects of my visit was the opportunity to see three superb special exhibitions – Asian portraiture at the Sackler, Anslem Kiefer at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Art of Native Americans of the North Pacific Coast at the National Museum of the American Indian. By London standards, I waltzed, unticketed, into shows whose costs would have totalled roughly $50 with no waiting and no hassle. I found the whole experience amazing.

Another highlight of my museum marathon was my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, established by an Act of Congress in 1989 and opened in 2004. It’s strange but every Washingtonian I talked to about this place found it disappointing. The throngs, who were there when I visited, and I, certainly disagree. I think the mistake is to have the same expectations for this place as one would have for a traditional museum. The American Indian Museum is more of a theatrical experience or a "happening" than a home for a formally curated collection and I loved this effect, as did the army of children who were there with their camps, their parents and their summer enrichment programs.

Using Eloise’s museum criteria of preferring places with lots of things to do, the Museum of the American Indian is an absolute winner. There are so many things to get excited about, for example, the unbelievable building designed by Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) and a team of Native American architects, the excellent introductory and other films on offer and the food available at the Mitsitam CafĂ© on the first level which serves a broad range of delicious and intriguing meals based on the indigenous foods of the Americas. Certainly, the museum was crowded, and I don’t say this very often, but I think it is worth coping with the crowds to visit this exciting new addition to the Washington’s museum landscape.

I finished my museum marathon at the recently reopened Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in the National Historic Landmark near Chinatown in downtown Washington which is roughly a 5 to 10 minute walk from the north side of the Mall. Talk about a fabulous building, the freshly renovated National Historic Landmark is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Rival architecture in the United States. As beautiful as the building is, the way the two museums inhabit the structure makes absolutely no sense and has to be considered a failure. I don’t know but when I was working for a bank that had warring departments, we ended up with projects that looked and felt exactly like this place. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where the American Art collection stopped and Portraiture began and vice versa and the guides and literature seem to fudge the issue. If the heads of these two museums are on speaking terms, I would be amazed. If they are, they need to straighten out how they are going to co-exist going forward.

Leaving this criticism aside, there are lots of things to love in the collections. The portrait gallery is a fun and informative American history lesson as seen through the faces of the folks who made the history. The American Art collection had some iconic pieces by artists such as Edward Hopper which are part of the visual memory of the United States. Since I had just finished a big lunch at the Museum of the American Indian, I did not stop in the Upper West Side or Portico Cafes but both looked very inviting.

All in all, I spent a total of seven hours sampling some of the finest art and culture that America, and the world for that matter, has to offer. I spent a total of $7.50 for my lunch. Only in the Museum of the American Indian were there crowds of any significance. It was one of the best days I have had in a long time and for all my current ambivalence about the United States and this administration’s deranged foreign and domestic policies, my museum marathon on the Mall provided a much appreciated moment when I was once again proud to be an American.

General Smithsonian Information

Tel: 202-633-1000 (voice/tape)
Recorded Information: Dial-a-Museum, 202 357 2020 or
Email: info@

Most museums are open daily from 10AM – 5:30 PM.
The Donald W. Reynolds Centre for American Art and Portraiture is open from 11:30 AM – 7:00 PM
All are closed December 25
There is a Smithsonian Information Centre in the Catle on the Mall, open daily from 8:30AM- 5:30 PM

Photo of the Museum of the American Indian

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