September 16th, 2010

Greg and Georgie go to Washington: Day 1, Natural History Museum, Freer Gallery

We had decided to go to Washington, D.C. as a vacation trip this year. Georgie had never been there. I had, on a high school class trip, but not been back since. We were particularly interested in the Smithsonian museums, but had arranged through Rep. Gwen Moore’s office for tours of the White House and the Capitol as well.

We got up at 0-dark-hundred hours September 8th, in order to check in for our flight that would get us to Reagan Airport by 12:30PM local time. Automated check-in for Midwest/Frontier/Republic went smoothly and the flight was OK. We had a tailwind and got in almost half an hour early.

We found an airport shuttle to our hotel, the Georgetown Best Western. On New Hampshire Ave NW, we found it to be very conveniently located a couple blocks from subway stops and with a number of good restaurants within a block or two. We checked in and got a nice room on the fifth floor front. The room had a king-size bed, and a sitting area with table, chairs, couch and desk. There was also a small refrigerator, a microwave oven, and even a set of dishes. The hotel’s free wi-fi worked well and was handy for double-checking opening times and restaurant reviews. The only poor thing about the hotel was the elevators, which seemed consistently sluggish, but created no major problems during our stay.

After partial unpacking, we headed out and managed to locate the nearby Metro station, and took the train to the Smithsonian stop. Washington’s Metro ran very efficiently and was great for us getting around. A day pass costs nine dollars for unlimited riding, which isn’t that bad. I was surprised by the stations: unlike places like Toronto, London, or Vienna, which have stations with individual character, the Washington stations are all exactly alike, and uniformly gray and industrial looking. Although they are actually quite clean, the bare precast concrete walls and roof and the dim lighting give it all a dingy air.

The Smithsonian stop comes up on the Mall near the Department of Agriculture, which we were amused to note had a decorative planting of corn on its corner. It’s about a block and a half walk past the Freer Gallery to the “Castle”, the Smithsonian headquarters building. Although called the Castle, the handsome and elaborate building reminds me more of a late-period English Abbey, or maybe one of the buildings of an Oxbridge college—appropriate, since it is a center of learning. We looked in there briefly and got a map of the Institution, and paid respects at the tomb of Smithson, which is just to the left inside the main doors.

Our primary target for the afternoon was the Natural History Museum, just across the Mall from the Castle. This is a large museum, familiar if you have seen “Night at the Museum 2.” All the Smithsonian staff, guards, and volunteers, were wonderfully friendly and helpful, and were quite ready to give directions not only to the Hope Diamond, but also to “Dum Dum”, the gum chewing Tiki head featured in the films.

The Gem Hall was one of the things I wanted to show Georgie. The Hope Diamond is beautiful, but what are really croggling are some of the other exhibits, such as a faceted citrine seven inches across and weighing in excess of twenty-two THOUSAND carats. Or the world’s largest flawless rock crystal ball, which is easily fifteen inches in diameter and weighs over one hundred pounds. This was what I always visualized a Palantir looked like, and the citrine and other huge gems could fill in for “the eye of the idol” in any pulp adventure you choose. There is also a very comprehensive display of fascinating mineral specimens.

The Paeleontological hall has some nice specimens, although the mountings are showing their age. There is a smallish T-Rex facing a massive Triceratops, a couple of Stegosaurs, an Apatosaur, and an Allosaur. The exhibit also contains some famous fossils, such as the one of the giant fish fossilized just after having swallowed a smaller fish, and the stone showing the wing bones of Quezalcoatlus, the largest known pterosaur. There was also a display of fossils from the Burgess shale, including the aptly named Hallucinogenia, and other strange forms of early life.

We also walked through the Ocean hall, and viewed some interesting models of unusual deep-sea life, before deciding we had seen what interested us.

We rounded off the afternoon by visiting the Freer Gallery of Art, which has as its emphasis the Oriental art works collected by Charles Lang Freer, and the works of James McNiell Whistler, who was a friend of Freer’s and whose works Freer also collected. I was very interested by Whistler’s works, being only familiar with “Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist’s Mother” (a.k.a. “Whistler’s Mother”). His works have much in common with both Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites, although he is not classed as a member of either movement, in part due to his continued use of line and the color black, both eschewed by the Impressionists. Although he has a fondness for portraying his models in neo-classical draperies, he was not part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and probably would have scorned their philosophy. The Freer has a number of his “Nocturnes” among other works, and a series of studies, all of which are very interesting, although the uniformly pretentious titles show in part why Whistler was such a target for satirists.

Another gallery held four huge ornamental painted Japanese screens, which were simply incredible. A couple portrayed sporting events, such as horse racing, and every spectator out of hundreds shown, is an individual portrait. Two others were scenics, and had an equivalent level of detail in showing the city or village portrayed.

After finishing the Freer, we went back the hotel, rested our feet, and planned dinner, deciding to go up the street to a place called “Grillfish,” which was an excellent seafood restaurant. We had the “mixed grill” which was two skewers each, holding a large shrimp, a scallop, a piece of salmon, and two pieces of swordfish, all of which were delicious. The meal also came with a nice green salad and flavorful dressing. The only off note was that, besides the greens and fresh vegetables, the salad also came garnished with sweet-and-sour, or “pickled” beets. This didn’t fit in, but we just didn’t eat them. After dinner, we walked around the neighborhood a bit and were pleased to discover a nearby Walgreen’s as well as a useful deli and convenience store.

After that, we went back to the hotel to relax, read, and put our feet up. There isn’t really a lot of nightlife in the neighborhood (although students from nearby George Washington University seemed to be heading to clubs somewhere) but we were quite content to have an early night after an early rising.

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Greg and Georgie go to Washington, Day 2: Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, Spy Museum

We started touring for the day at the National Air and Space Museum. I was pleased to see that a number of new exhibits had been added since my trip decades ago, including Spaceship One, the Breitling Orbiter balloon gondola, and the Voyager aircraft that circled the world non-stop (surprisingly small!). We looked at most of this museum, including the very nice exhibit surrounding the Wright Flyer, through WWI and WWII aircraft, to the X-1, X-15, and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft, including the inside of the Skylab replica. Then, we took a break for lunch. The Air and Space Museum has a nice restaurant pavilion attached, which is served by a combined McDonalds and Boston Market franchise (!). We got Boston Market lunches, noting that Washington is an expensive city, since the meal cost us $20.00 that would have been less than $15 here. (Most of the other places we ate were closer to Milwaukee prices—we hoped the Museum was getting a cut--). Fortunately, admission to the Smithsonian museums and government buildings is all free.

After lunch, we went to the Museum of American History, which, frankly, I found a bit disappointing. It is smaller than some of the other museums, and, instead of trying to present a comprehensive timeline of our history, relies on a number of transient exhibits built around a core of permanent exhibits, which include the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the First Ladies’ Inaugural gown collection, a Revolutionary War gunboat retrieved from Lake Champlain, and Julia Child’s kitchen—all of which we looked at. There was also an interesting temporary exhibit on the life of Abraham Lincoln, but, after that, not much else of interest other than the “John Bull” locomotive.

The good side of that was that it left us time and energy to get to the International Spy Museum. The Spy Museum is a for-profit operation, so one of the few things we had to pay admission for, but the $18.00 each was worth it. The museum has a large number of exhibits, mostly focusing on modern and Cold War-era spying, but with some interesting historical information also. There were lots of good photographs, devices, and interactive stations that could have substantially prolonged our stay had we attempted to try them all. As it was, we were getting tired and coasted though the last bit so as to have energy enough to negotiate the dangerously attractive gift shop.

Then, back to the hotel, and, having had our main meal of the day at noon, went out to a highly regarded place called Crepeaway, which does lunch crepes (all containing cheese of some sort) and dessert crepes, most of which have Nutella as a filling augmented with various types of fruit. This simple formula works well. We each got a large, freshly made crepe, which was folded into a cone and had the filling poured in. Georgie got the Nutella and fresh strawberries, which was quite delicious, and I got the Nutella and banana crepe, which was very nice as well. For a light, tasty dessert, this was hard to beat.

To be continued, Day 3--

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