Washington is the ultimate museum city. Not only does it have a huge number of absolutely world-class museums, but it has some that are absolutely unique (such as it’s Museum of American History (aka, “the Nation’s Attic), but many of these museums are absolutely FREE.
Not surprisingly, we spend much of our DC time in these museums. Although it is impossible to even survey, much less fully explore all of the city’s museums in a few days, we made a valiant effort. This year’s stops-all of which we have been to a number of times–included:
Since our taste in art tends to lean toward oriental (hence the Freer and Sackler) and the late 19th through early 21st centuries, we typically spend much of our time in the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing. The top two floors typically play host to temporary exhibits. On this visit, these included a small, but the thought-provoking exhibit on the art of Kerry James Marshall (an artist who specializes in large canvasses portraying the African-American experience) and a large exhibit that focuses on the front screens, the sets, and especially the costumes developed by famous artists for Ballets Russes ballets and operas staged under Serge Diaghilev.
The bottom floor houses the museum’s mid-20th century collection, representing a wide section of sculptures from artists including Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti and paintings from Jean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning.
Since time was limited, we limited our tour of the West Wing to a special exhibit (a 150-year anniversary tribute to Edward Munch) and the Impressionist, Chinese Porcelain, and American Decorative Arts sections.
Every stop at the National Gallery, however, has to include at least a brief still through the Sculpture Garden, with its lovely Pavilion cafe and fountain and its fun sculptures from Artists including Oldenburg, Miro, Calder, Bourgeois and of course, Roxy Paine’s stainless steel tree and Lucas Samatas’ fun stacked chairs.
These two interconnected galleries, which house much of the capital’s public collection of oriental art, are among our favorites. Both sections of the museum, while primarily consisting of Chinese art, also have nice collections of Middle Eastern and Indian art. The Freer’s Whistler-painted Peacock Room, meanwhile, is a gem and the next gallery has a great collection of John Singer Sargent paintings. Each gallery, of course, has its own specialties and standout pieces, but since neither attracts the type of crowds as the better-known museum, both are tranquil and relaxing.
From ancient Asian to contemporary American art. The Hirshhorn is just a few doors, but worlds away from the Freer and Sackler. This circular museum is filled with contemporary art, from hundreds of small sculptures in the inner sections of the ring to large-scale paintings and installations in the outer sections. Although part of the museum was closed in preparation for a new exhibit, there were still plenty of fascinating pieces to see, from paintings and sculptures from contemporary masters to thought-provoking, and in some cases, disturbing creations from lesser-known artists.
Then, when you walk out the door, you find yourself in the museum’s lovely sculpture garden, which is filled with iconic works from artists including Rodin, Calder, Smith, and Munoz.
Ever-interesting (with its fascinating history of five centuries of journalism) and ever-intimidating (due to the incredible number of exhibits and the hinge volume of material to absorb). The permanent exhibits trace the history of journalism, with discussions of major events and examples of front-page stories of them and special discussion of particular issues, such as war reporting, the roles of television and Internet news, and the era of muckraking journalism. Small theaters provide drill-downs into topics including the history of the First Amendment, objectivity in journalism, and the use of unnamed sources. The recreation of Tim Russert’s office, meanwhile, provides a nice remembrance of quality news interview shows, and a map that details the degree of press freedom throughout the world is sobering.
The museum also has numerous spaces for special exhibits. This visit included exhibits on the role of the media in creating the “Camelot” image of the JFK White House, the synergistic role of the press and the FBI during the J. Edgar Hoover era, and one on the role of news on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Particularly interesting, and in some cases harrowing, was an exhibit of all Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs throughout the decades.
Always interesting and always packed, this museum traces the history of aviation, from the Wright Brothers through the Apollo Mission, Skylab, and the Hubble Telescope. After a cursory simulator ride, we spent most of the brief time that we had on this visit in the section on space exploration. Although the part of the Air and Space Museum that is located on the Mall is always crowded, there is another section of the museum out by Dulles airport. Although we did not get there this trip, it has the Space Shuttle, a 747, and many other interesting planes.
Ford’s Theater, of course, is the theater at which Lincoln was shot. It is now a very popular site with exhibits that examine Lincoln’s time in DC (from his ignominious disguised entry into the city to his fateful visit to the theater), a visit to the restored theater, with a Ranger’s presentation on the night of the shooting, and an optional tour of the Peterson House, to which Lincoln was carried to the bed on which he died. All very professional and very sobering. IT was also a nice complement to our previous day’s Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour (see our accompanying DC Walking Tour blog).
Although we could easily spend days in the aptly nicknamed “America’s Attic”, we had only two hours. We spend most of our very limited time in the American Presidency section. This section explains the emergence of the presidency and the Cabinet and the growing accumulation of power in the executive branch. It also has profiles and memorabilia of each of the country’s presidents. Then, after a brief, but sobering stop in the darkened room that displays the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scot Keyes to pen the National Anthem, we took brief spins through displays trying the history of electricity and lighting, power machinery, and food in America. All very interesting. But this all too brief stop did more to whet than satisfy our appetites for learning more. We needed more time; much more time.
Although portraits aren’t normally our favorite genre, we were drawn to return to this museum by a display of scale models of early American inventions. Back over the first hundred or so years of the U.S. patent office, inventors had to supply models, as well as drawings and descriptions of inventions for which they sought patents. This one-room display shows perhaps fifty of these models, ranging from those of a relatively simple extension ladder to that of a very complex fence-making machine.
Since we were already in the museum, we took a very brief tour of a few of the galleries. One of our favorite permanent collections was the President’s gallery, which displays oil portraits of all the presidents, these ranged from the iconic Gilbert Stewart portrait of Washington to the much more abstract Elaine de Kooning portrait of Kennedy and Chuck Close portrayal of Clinton.
The museum’s Civil Rights section contained a fun, yet poignant sculpture of a petite Rosa Parks begging hauled off to jail by two burly policemen. We were also intrigued by a special peoples’ choice competition of portrait-like representations of people in many different media.
We haven’t been to this commercially-funded museum in many years. We were attracted to return by a special exhibit that portrayed the megalomaniacal villains that threatened and were ultimately dispatched by the fictional super spy, Bond; James Bond. The visit begins with a somewhat hokey pretext of choosing your own undercover identity. It then takes you through many rooms of Cold War-era undercover artifacts, including disguises, bugging devices, miniature weapons, and the like. The interesting part begins with overviews of spying, famous spies, and famous spy-driven intrigues of American history, from the Civil War through the World Wars and the Cold War.
Then after a very cursory and somewhat alarmist mention of the current threats of cyberspying, hacking, and cybersecurity, you come to the Bond exhibit. This exhibit provides photos and brief descriptions of each of the villains and their plots, along with a few displays of costumes and torture devices. Although the museum was kind of fun the first time, it now seems very dated and frankly, pretty lame.