Learning a little American History

The National Museum of American History opened in 1964 (under the name Museum of History & Technology) and is committed to collecting items that reflect the experience of the American people. It covers all things American, from politics to science, military to pop culture. During my visit the West wing of the building was closed for renovations. As much as I hate missing out on a learning opportunity, I found I was ok with this. It took me long enough to make it through the 2/3rds that was open. I decided to start the top and work my way down. I won’t even try to tell you about everything this museum holds; to even mention every gallery is too much. I will just hit on the tourist highlights and my favorite parts.

The 3rd floor East wing is dedicated to American Wars and Politics. War museums are a personal favorite of mine so I spent a long time making my way through the chronologically organized Price of Freedom exhibit. I found it exceptionally well done. There were great quick summary type blurbs about each important person/battle/etc, followed by longer explanations. It struck me as the perfect way to satisfy both quick-glance and long-haul museum goers. I enjoyed the quantity of artifacts as well. Here is George Washington’s sword which he used “only in self defense or in defense of country and its rights.”
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I was disappointed to find that the War of 1812 only received one 4 foot long panel. That was a shining time for Canada…we helped burn down the White House…but Americans don’t seem to want to dwell on one of the only historic wars they didn’t win.
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The sections on Korea & Vietnam were particularly interesting to me. I had spent hours and hours learning about the World Wars in Europe (slash in high school social studies) so I was fascinated to hear about the more modern and lesser known (to me) conflicts. Plus Vietnam changed the way the nation saw war. It was the first ‘televised war’ and the images captured during its duration are exceptionally powerful.
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Also on this floor are exhibits dedicated to the American Presidents and First Ladies. The President’s Hall talked of life in the White House, Inauguration and assassinations. It told of how the presidents spent their times, raised their families and how the nation celebrated a new one and mourned when one was lost. Next door a long display case houses a rotating collection of Inaugural Ball gowns. I was able to see dresses dating back to Mary Lincoln Todd (Lincoln’s bipolar wife) all the way up to Michelle Obama’s latest dress. The later was stunning, the former a little conservative for my tastes 😉
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The galleries on the 2rd floor East depict American Ideals. There was an exhibit on the evolution of house-hold life, one showing original art from Little Golden Books and a gallery on African American rights. This paralleled the ending of slavery in the American Civil War and the 1960’s fight to end segregation and gain equality. It also had Lincoln’s suit & hat (the one he was wearing the night he was shot)!
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American Stories is a real mish-mash of things. The idea is that you can learn the stories of influential people, inventions and achievements in American History. You look one way and there’s a regimental uniform. You look another and there’s Kermit the Frog. Look left to see Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Look right for Gabby Douglas’s Olympic unitard. I enjoyed the box of musical devices through the decades, right up to & including an iTunes gift card.
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The 2nd floor American experience culminates in the “can’t miss” Star Spangled Banner exhibit. It put my bunny-ears around “can’t miss” because I heard it so many freaking times…don’t miss it…did you see it?…you didn’t skip it, did you? No I saw the flag…geez. Anyway, this gallery houses the original Star Spangled Banner. The flag is 40ft by 19ft and 100 years old. On September 14th, 1814 US Soldiers flew this flag over Ft McHenry to signify a crucial victory over the British. Upon spying this flag, with its broad stripes & bright stars, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write what is now the American national anthem. It was a neat thing to see, especially how there are pieces missing from souvenir hunters who got to it before it was donated to the Smithsonian in 2008.
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The pics are from the Smithsonian website, as photography is not allowed in this exhibit.

Finally, the 1st floor East summarizes American involvement in Transportation and Technology. These are definitely areas of interest for me!
Power Machinery is an area that would probably bore a lot of folks, but I took a combustion engines course in university and love to see actual models of the engines I read so much about. The Otto Atmospheric engine. The Atkinson Cycle Engine. A full model of a double-layer steam tube boiler! A Mechanical Engines Heaven!
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America on the Move would have been Papa Padget’s dream. It paraded the evolution of transportation from horse & buggy to the early crank-engine cars to the modern luxury vehicles of today. There were also sections on planes, trains and automobiles…which I already mentioned but that line is incomplete without them.
Finally, I ended my visit in Lighting a Revolution. This is another exhibit that most probably breeze through but I probably spent the longest time here…especially if you judge in minutes per square foot. It’s only a small section but it is full of Edison artefacts. I love Thomas Edison…like so much…He is on my list of Top 5 Favorite Historical Figures and might even be invited to my dream “5 People Dead or Alive” dinner party. I’m sure you know that he got the world turned on to electricity. But did you know that after he died they wanted to shut all power off for a minute to honor him? However electricity was soooo important by that point that they couldn’t! Talk about making a difference in people’s lives! Display cases held things like his patents, notebooks and original inventions & prototypes.
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This concludes your visit to the national Museum of American History, as well as the Smithsonian Institute. Next up: Monuments!

Love & Luck,
Kris

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Now this is my kind of Mall

Day 3 of Washington DC began with a metro ride to the National Mall. I was ready for the Smithsonian Museum tour….not an actual tour, just me wandering about on my own 🙂 I started in the south-east corner of the Mall. Here is the American Indian Museum. I didn’t have time to explore the exhibits, but the building itself is an architectural wonder. Some aboriginal cultures believe that evil hides in corners so the structure was designed with no right angles. As you can see the exterior is all soft curves, and the interior is much the same.
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If you travel around the Mall clockwise, which I did, next comes the National Air & Space Museum. I’m sure you don’t want to hear any more about that place after the last post. If I’m being honest I actually swung back inside as I went by. I pretended that I finished my day while finishing at the Air & Space Museum but in reality the 5 hours I got in yesterday (due to the museum’s late summer hours) was not enough. I started my day with another 2 hours of space exploration. But you’ve already heard about that so let’s move on to the rest of my day and more Smithsonian fun!

Next comes the Hirshhorn Gallery. This museum houses post-war era contemporary & modern art. Joseph H Hirshhorn originally donated the base collection in the 60’s, but obviously art is continuously being added or it could hardly be considered modern!
The building itself is a giant circle, like a donut! I love donuts. It’s architecturally interesting and very convenient for viewing the work. I like that you don’t have to weave through rooms and try to plot out the best path to make sure you see everything…or is that just me that always wants to draw out a plan on my museum map? I much prefer the logical arrangement of things in one big circle; one lap for the inside, one lap for the outside, and on to the next floor.
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Before going in I admired the exterior works of art. First there is the Sculpture Garden. I know what you’re thinking, “But Kristin, didn’t you go to the Sculpture Garden yesterday?” Yes, and no…that was for the National Gallery, which you might recall is not part of the Smithsonian museum group. This garden is full of modern pieces, such as a glass & mirror room that is very disorienting to stand inside. My favourite was Alexander Calder’s Sky Hooks. I think it’s the perfect name, both to befit the piece and inspire the imagination. There was also this great never-ending spiral staircase.
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The first thing I saw when getting off the escalator within the building was Peter Coffin’s Designs for Colby Poster Company. This consists of 80 3-color lithographs that are so simple, yet kind of overwhelming when all place together in one long line. The photo below isn’t even half of the collection.
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I was excited to see an original Andy Warhol (called Flowers) as my limited knowledge of artists actually encompasses him. My favourite were the installation pieces though. You can’t get photos that do them justice, but they are very effective in person. Ann Hamilton’s Palimpsest provides an interesting commentary on memory loss. A room is plaster with handwritten notes on yellowing paper. They each say something different, personal memories of over a hundred people. A fan makes the flutter and wave as if the memories are fleeting. In the center of the room is a glass terrarium with snails munching on heads of cabbage, symbolizing the brain’s deterioration.

The Smithsonian has a number of other smaller galleries. Being as art-inept as I am I dedicated my limited time to other institutions, but will definitely check out the African Art, Ripley (International Art) and Freer/Sackler (Asian Art) Galleries next time.

At the center of the mall is the Smithsonian Castle. What a breathtaking building!
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Aside from my desire to sit and stare, the Castle is a quick visit. Inside is simply a visitor center and cafeteria. I picked up a sandwich here and enjoyed the AC along with a mix of tourists & Smithsonian employees. I had the urge to steal someone’s ID badge and go on an adventure but behaved myself and headed back out to the Mall instead. On the way out I was able to pay my respects to Mr. James Smithsonian, who has his final resting place in an alcove by the main entrance.

Directly across from the Castle is the Natural History Museum. My biggest regret of this trip is that I did not have time to visit it. It’s supposed to be spectacular and I am prepares to make another trip to DC just to get to visit it & the Smithsonian Zoo.
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Running through the center of the Mall are long stretches of grass. During the day I watched Day Camp groups frolic and snack and walk in orderly hand-holding lines in these areas. Then in the evening I was surprised to emerge from a museum and find groups of adults spaced out along the grass playing different sports. Coming from a city with a smaller population and an abundance of sport complexes I had never really thought through how a big city would make room for rec sport leagues. This is how DC dealt with the space issue. I’m not a big softball fan, but I think I would enjoy it more if running to first base provided a view of the Capitol Building and running home had you heading for the Washington Monument.
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My last stop on the Mall was the American History Museum, but lets give that one it’s own post!

Love & Luck,
Kris

It looks like a couple of lawn chairs strapped to the frame of a Chevy truck.

Back to Washington!
We last left off on DC Day 2 at the American Art Museum & Portrait Gallery and I teased that some Air & Space was coming next. I left the art gallery in the late afternoon feeling like I could have spent the rest of the day there, but there was too much to see & too little time to be devoting whole days to one museum.
The Gallery is one of the Smithsonian institutions that are not on the National Mall. It`s actually located about 1km north, so only a short walk away. On my way to the next museum on my list I stopped for a late lunch. It is so easy to lose track of time when you’re wrapped up in how much there is to see that it`s suddenly 2pm and you haven’t eaten anything. I was very excited to come across a Pret a Manger. Justine & I had frequented their establishments in London and beyond during our Europe trip (like this day) and I found their food the perfect quick meal. I munched on a wrap & chai tea and contemplated where my next stop should be.
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It seemed logical to go straight to the place I most wanted to see. That way I would be sure not to miss it. My path from Pret to the National Air & Space Museum took me through the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. The National Gallery is not a Smithsonian owned museum, however it does sit on the Mall and is also free to visit. 20130806-211351.jpg
It was a really lovely day out, bright sunny and hot. Maybe a little too hot. Actually, definitely a little too hot. I was happy to take a walk outside though, as I knew I was heading to another wonderfully air-conditioned building at the other end. The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden offered a wide variety of styles. Here are my favorites: the giant spider thing, a replica of an old Paris Metro entrance (this made me so nostalgic that it almost physically hurt…if you wanna read about my time in Paris you can click here…or here…or here…or here…), The crazy metal tree you can see behind the metro stop and this house.
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The last is literally called House I and was created by American artist Roy Lichtenstein. What was really eye catching about it (and that doesn’t translate into a photo) is that the house is actually a “V” shape and appears to dramatically change proportions as you walk by it. Very cool, very clever!

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The Air & Space Museum started out as simply the National Air Museum in 1946. After the space race of the 50’s & 60’s the Space part of it was added. Walking into the building it’s like “BAM! Check out all of this stuff!” I was barely even in the door and already my camera was out and I was snapping photos of planes, rockets & the Gemini IV space capsule. I was so overwhelmed that I missed the moon rock the first time by. My piece of advice for entering this museum: Don’t miss the moon rock! I lucky figured it out and doubled back later because no one wants to miss the opportunity to touch an actual piece of the moon!
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Feeling a little over stimulated I decided to grab a map and plan a route. Little did I know that the museum had the world’s most helpful staff! The elderly gentleman behind the counter inquired into my area of interest (all of it!) and time commitment (as long as it took!) then pulled out his red pen & a map and plotted a course that best suited my needs.
My museum expert had me starting on the second floor at the beginning: the Wright Brothers. In the center of this room stood the actual 1903 Wright Flyer, aka the first plane to every accomplish powered flight! After casually flying from Edmonton to DC it’s incredible to see where it all started, and only just over 100 years ago!
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Continuing clockwise around the upper floor I watched airplanes progress from a new discovery to a war-time necessity. Air travel first gained popularity as a sport in the 1930’s. Legends were made as pilots pushed each other to travel further and faster. Amelia Earhart flew her Lockhead 5B Vega clear across the Atlantic and then North America, being the first woman to do each. Many others had a more tragic fate. One display featured the slightly morbid game of Success, Rescued or Dead, where you read of pilots and their attempted flights and had to guess the results. Airplane development & production really took off though at the outbreak of the Second World War. The minor involvement of air travel during WWI had proved immensely useful and all nations were determined to seize this advantage. The German found the most success and by the end of WWII the Allies were so eager to capture examples of these advanced aircrafts that they instituted Operation LUSTY (LUftwaffe Secret TechnologY). The flyable planes were flown to Europe and then transported overseas to the US to be studied.
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Continuing downstairs the museum delved into the progression of commercial air travel. The early advertisements made the journey look awfully glamorous, but the reality was somewhat less so. A one-way ticket across the country cost $338 in 1929. At that time a Ford Model A cost merely $525…can you imagine if you could buy a car with the price of round-trip airfare!?! If you could afford to board the plane the ride was not the luxurious ride we experience today. I know what you’re thinking: Luxurious? Do you call being jammed into a middle seat between a smelly man and an obese woman while listening to screaming babies and having to pay for a lackluster meal luxurious? Well in comparison it is! The noise of a early commercial jet in take off was 120dB in the cabin…that’s 10dB louder than front row ay a rock concert…it’s also only 10dB lower than the threshold of pain. But I am sad I am too young to have ever seen flight attendants dressed in these get-ups:
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One of the most interesting things I saw all day was a video mapping the flights of all planes flying over the USA in one day. At peak times there can be upwards of 5000 planes in the air. And then it showed the air traffic on 9/11. 5000 planes in the air, then within minutes every one of them grounded. It’s amazing they could have that kind of control…although I also find it amazing that with that many planes in the air at once they aren’t constantly crashing into each other.
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Moving on I entered the Space half of the museum. I find planes plenty interesting, but they are nothing compared to spaceships!
The Space Race Gallery features a Skylab Orbital Workshop. Here you can see an example of an orbiting astronaut’s quarters. They are the opposite of roomy. In this Gallery you will also find the Missile Pit. Um, can you say coolest name ever?
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Travelling through the space exhibits there was many interesting and educational things to see. I learned about the early sky mapping, examined space ship design models, followed the space race timeline and saw an actual Apollo Lunar Module. This last one was set up to recreate a moon landing and I could almost feel the weightlessness of the astronauts as they took their first step into the great unknown.
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My favourite area was Apollo to the Moon where each of the American space flights were documented and displayed. The gallery of actual equipment blew my mind. “Oh that’s just a actual space suit worn by an actual Apollo astronaut as he walked on the actual moon. No big deal.” Huge deal! The Lunar Rover was really fascinating. I’m amazed that scientists were able to create a vehicle that would operate on the low gravity, air-less surface of moon… Although the guys next to me seemed to be less impressed. The one guy took one look and said: I don’t know…It just looks like a couple of lawn chairs strapped to the frame of an old Chevy track.”
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Oh, and I also saw Scott Hamilton skate the universe…???…
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And with that I wrap up this post…more on some of the other Smithsonian’s to come…but until then:
To Infinity & Beyond!

Love, Luck & Lightyears,
Kris