When we started this trip in September, Greta had three main goals: Yellowstone, barbecue, and the Smithsonian. So our five days around DC were overwhelmingly biased towards museums. I spent a reasonable amount of time in DC in the 80s and 90s, and I knew that with winter closing in I couldn’t do a comprehensive survey of what was now going on in this big city, so I just went with the flow. However, I did manage to trick Greta into walking around Georgetown and Northwest on our way to and from museums.
I probably hadn’t been in Georgetown in 30 years, and staying there with our friends Bob and Susan provided a good excuse for wandering the neighborhood, and back and forth to the Dupont Circle Metro stop.
As has become the norm in older cities on this trip, the experience of architectural quality, neighborhood walkability and overall urbanity was remarkable. It was also strange realizing that this is a neighborhood of the rich and powerful, and probably many of the houses we passed were occupied by people of whom we had heard. (Bob did point out the black SUV in front of John Kerry’s house, which meant that he was home.) I was totally enamored of the area, until one evening I decided to run out to pick up a couple of beers before dinner. Two miles later, nothing. Georgetown is a place where real estate values and rents are so high that normal businesses have been squeezed out by high-end clothing retailers and home design stores. You can’t run down to the corner to meet any need of day-to-day life, so you probably just send your staffers out to run errands in the black SUV.
Downtown DC has never been known for its quality of modern buildings – too much respectful timelessness, height limits, classical obsessions, conservative tendencies, etc. But even with that low a bar, this building is a standout.
We spent most of a day at the Air and Space Museum, which is memorable for one of the most legible partis in a museum.
and also for meeting my main criterion for a great museum: have lots of real stuff. Not an interpretive center, not solely didactic, not creating a programmed visitor experience. Have cool stuff that can’t be seen anywhere else, and all the other considerations are secondary. The Air and Space may be the best example of this – Greta was constantly amazed that these were the real objects.
The American History Museum was much better than I remembered; I think the new approaches to exhibit design of recent decades have been spectacular. We checked off some iconic pieces, such as the Star Spangled Banner, the display of which unfortunately shows some of the same grandiosity and obsessive fetishism of objects which ruined the experience of Mt. Rushmore and the Liberty Bell. We also caught the greatest of the slightly-nutty representations of a founding father as a Roman republican:
The partially-reconstructed display of an 18th century house from Ipswich is superb, detailing not just the technology of the building, but tracing its social history through the different households that occupied it for 200 years.
The ability of the installations to show the social, economic, technological and political context of the objects was really sophisticated. The section on transportation clearly demonstrated the interactions between the changing transportation systems and the economy, making connections that I’d never fully understood (such as why the textile industry was able to shift to the south when it did). And strangely enough, the section on post-war car culture focussed on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, with this tableau of cruising through Hollywood.
I started the Natural History museum with Greta, but my willingness to look at taxidermy animals is much lower than hers, especially when some of the greatest paintings in the world are across the street. So I ditched her for the afternoon and went to the National Gallery. Back in the 80s and mid-90s I’d always enjoyed business trips to DC, as I could spend the day in meetings and then run out to late hours at the art museums. So an afternoon at the National Gallery was similar to my day at the MFA – a chance to revisit familiar and beloved works, plus notice a few things that were either newly displayed or had escaped my notice.
Highlights included one room full of large portraits by three of my favorite painters -Whistler, Eakins and Sargent – and being able to look back and forth amongst them rapidly, thinking about how different their approaches were. The Italian Renaissance collection is the best in the country, how can such familiar works just knock you out every time you see them? One new favorite is this piece by Jacopo Bassano, which seems to be Maritime Mannerism; to the impossible poses, proportions and colors of Mannerism, we can add the unlikely stability and balance of figures leaping around on tiny boats.
And what can you say to a room with four Vermeers? One of the Vermeers in the permenant collection was on loan to the MFA, but they had thankfully replaced it with a loaner from the Rijksmuseum.
Seeing them reminded me of the time that there was the big Vermeer retrospective in 1995, and the one weekend I was able to see it, Newt Gingrich shut down the Federal government and that was it. There are many reasons to loathe what has happened to the Republican Party in the past 20 years, but that one tops my personal list.
The galleries of the East Building are being remodeled, and an extra floor added on one of the corners, but the atrium remains open. It is still one of Pei’s best buildings, perhaps as it avoids the usual gypsum board abstract detailing. In this case, the Washington penchant for marble and grandiosity does pay off.
It was wonderful seeing these amazing museums, but we had far too little time, skipping about a dozen other museums I wanted to visit. When I was planning this trip, I realized we really needed two years to do it right, and that was very evident in Washington.