How I spent my afternoon in Washington

I spent Saturday afternoon in Washington D.C. with part of my immediate family. My original plan was to hit two house museums (Hillwood and the Brewmaster’s Castle) and then head to the Smithsonian’s Freer & Sackler Galleries. This plan was quickly dashed when travel and time constraints had us arriving in the city at about 3:00 p.m.

We headed first to the World War II Memorial, which was surprisingly crowded. My dad, a Marine Corps veteran, wanted to get a look, and I admit that I’ve been curious ever since I heard the design criticized as a prime example of Third Reich architecture.

The monument is impressive in that it is large and has a fountain; that’s where my positive opinion ends. I found the design to be too forceful and obvious in terms of symbolism, and I shuddered at the thought that Maya Lin’s masterpiece, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, nearly wound up looking like this one. (Government officials wanted to make the wall out of white granite instead of black and build it above-ground.)

What was moving to me about the memorial wasn’t the actual structure; it was the numerous veterans who were being led around it in wheelchairs or clutching the arms of volunteers. I wish there had been more of an effort to focus on the people who were involved in this conflict; my impression was that the focus was more on geography and on evoking Victorian standards of sculptural symbolism than on people.

After the World War II Memorial, we headed to the other end of the National Mall and split up to do some museum-hopping. Our first stop was the Freer Gallery to see the Peacock Room, one of James McNeill Whistler’s masterworks. The room was absolutely breathtaking: the gold leaf paint was so vibrant, it was hard to believe it was 104 years old. The combination of greenish-blue background and gold leaf was striking; it’s amazing to me that the use of two colors could have so much depth and dynamism.

The Freer itself is a peaceful, calming place. There were few people there when we arrived, and it was enjoyable to be able to wander the galleries without being jostled. I’ll gladly return there, especially to explore more of the permanent collection. I had no idea that the Freer had such a large collection of Whistler paintings, but it makes complete sense given the influence of Asian art forms on his work.

When we finished looking at artwork, we wandered into the Freer’s outdoor courtyard, full of Japanese maples, bonsai, and–surprisingly–several allegorical sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. My only disappointment about the Freer was its gift shop. Actually, there was no gift shop in the building, but we trekked over to the Sackler to visit theirs. A happy accident was wandering through their Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran exhibition, which satisfied a certain member of our group who’s really into ancient history. Once at the gift shop, I was disappointed to discover that there was virtually no merchandise related to the Peacock Room or Charles Lang Freer, the gallery’s founder. I was looking for a postcard at the very least, but all that was to be had was the exhibit catalog at a whopping $110.00. There were a few notecards of Whistler’s Japanese-inspired paintings, but that was it.

After the Freer, we wound up at the National Museum of Natural History completely by mistake (blame a confused, non-museumgoing dad for that one). My sister aptly commented that “it smells like unwashed humanity in here,” and she was right. The place was packed with school groups, families and roving packs of teenagers. After a big mix-up involving a taxidermied African elephant and a Dumbo car from Disneyland (long story), we realized we were in the wrong place (our other clue was that we were trying unsuccessfully to locate the rest of our family on the third floor, when visitors can only go as high as the second).

In our attempt to leave, we took the elevator to the ground floor, not realizing that the exit was on the first floor. Luckily, we were met with a serendipitous surprise: the ground floor is full of old-fashioned avian taxidermy cases. We saw graceful swans, fluffy baby owls, juicy-looking turkeys and fierce falcons. I was particularly amused by one exhibit depicting a family of bobwhites, complete with one baby hiding beneath a leaf.

We finally caught up with my parents at the National Museum of American History (that whole Natural History/American History thing is apparently really confusing to some people). We saw an exhibit about 1939 which we immediately dubbed disappointing since it didn’t include a case about Gone With the Wind, our favorite movie. We were fascinated by Faith Bradford’s amazing dollhouse and my mom got to see her favorite item, a pair of Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers. On our way to the gift shop, we found an awesome exhibit case dedicated to Chinese take-out in America (another family favorite).

I spent a long time in the gift shop, mainly poring over the bookshelves and adding copiously to my Goodreads list. (Alas, I would love to be able to support the Smithsonian by buying every book I coveted there, but there isn’t enough gold in Dubai for that.) I was also looking for postcards of Faith Bradford’s dollhouse, but again I was stymied. All that was to be had was a book, though at least it was a reasonable $24.95. I also picked up a book about Titanic before we headed out.

[SIDE RANT: Museum directors of the world, I would like to tell you something you may not have realized thus far: museum people like to buy things. Some people have more money and/or interest than others, so you should have things of varying financial commitment levels. Books are great, but sometimes people just want an image they can put on a bulletin board or the fridge. Also, we can get officially-licensed Star Wars merchandise anywhere. It is much cheaper to produce items based on your own collection, to which you already own the licensing! /RANT]

After all that sightseeing, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Dinner was at Carmine’s, a great place to go if you have a group of five or more people. All the food is served family-style, and the portions are large enough to feed a small herd. An appetizer portion of fried calamari was at least a pound and a half of squid, and two hens gave up their lives to provide us with chicken parmigiana. The linguine with clam sauce was delicious (fresh clams straight out of the shell!), and we were all thankful for the mouthwash dispensers in the bathrooms after the healthy dose of garlic. We supplemented with 10 or 11 baskets of bread (ok, it was more like 4 or 5, but still) and a “side” of escarole that could have fed my grandmother’s entire Abbruzzese village.

My one criticism of the place is that it seems it’s necessary to be a “regular” to really know what you can actually order. The menu had no descriptions, only lists, and there were specials of the day that our server didn’t tell us about. Apparently there’s an option to add pasta beneath an entree for an additional charge that we only found out about by rubbernecking at other patrons’ plates.

After stuffing ourselves to oblivion, we stumbled back to our hotel in suburban Northern Virginia a tired, huddled mass yearning to break free of our blisters. America, Yeah!

All photographs taken by me with permission of the Smithsonian Institution and copyright Alias Miss Mellie.

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2 Responses to How I spent my afternoon in Washington

  1. Miss O'Hara says:

    The “Great Elephant Swap” will go down in history (haha) as one of the best family escapades ever! The only thing missing from the itinerary was a stop at Bojangles’!

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