Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Smithsonian - Washington DC

The Smithsonian Institution is the worlds largest museum and research complex. It was first established in 1846, and while not completely based in Washington DC, a vast majority of the complex is based there. James Smithson, a British scientist, left his fortune to the United States with his passing in 1829 in order to found "at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". This process has led to many sites open to visitors where knowledge can be learned without restrictions to any as all locations are free to visit. You can't access everything, but what you can is certainly a great experience.

My first experience of the Smithsonian was a visit to the Air and Space Museum, Steven F Udvar-Hazy centre. This is located near Dulles airport and hold hundreds of air and space craft that don't fit within the mall museum.

Seeing craft such as an SR-71 Blackbird, X-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Space shuttle Discovery as well more historical craft such as Wright flyers, old Curtiss craft, MIGs, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.

It was great to see a lot of planes in the flesh that were plastic models on the shelves while growing up. This includes the Concorde, F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom, A6-E Intruder. But there were so many more already mentioned or at the other museum space in the mall. But this location was amazing and another couple of hours could have easily been spent looking over the planes more in depth.

An evening trip was then made to the mall part of DC where a visit to the Tidal Pool and Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool made for great viewing in the evening.

The first full day of looking at the Smithsonian, monuments and sights of DC started with a tour of the Capitol Building (mainly because none of the museums are open before about 10am). Remember when visiting some of the Washington sights that security will take all liquids and food items from your bag, so don't pack your lunch and enter secure places early in your day). Visitors enter the Emancipation Hall, where there is also a plaster model of the Statue of Freedom.

The guided tour starts with a very patriotic and idealistic video before you move into Catafalque (supports the floor for the central dome area).

From here the tour moves up to the previously mentioned floor where heads all raised to look up into the inside of the Capitol Dome.

And then through to the adjoining room which used to be where all the elected members shared space, regardless of which team they played for. This room eventually became a market place before being cleaned up and is now a part of the tour. There is also an acoustical oddity in the room where there are certain locations where whispers travel from to other locations on the other side of the room clearly. This wasn't so good in the past when people were talking about policies and the like.

Back outside it was a rather wet day, but some of the locals were fine with this.

Across the road (or via an underground tunnel) is the Library of Congress.

A few doors back down The Mall is the original Air and Space Museum. This is quite tightly packed with historical air and space craft. Some of the space craft includes satellites, Skylab and moon lander replicas, earth return craft, etc.

There are also a couple of NASA/Air Force craft and some private enterprise craft that are capable of at least edge of space and supersonic flight.

Then there are some WW2 planes that graced many shelves in model form and work the imagination of many current air shows.

And some additional historical and war related machines throughout as well as modern aircraft and displays.

Back across The Mall is the multi building Art Gallery.
I obviously went into the wrong building as it wasn't the most interesting art gallery I've been in. Well, not for my taste anyway. Though there is always something to take ones fancy (or randomly photograph).

Back outside in the modern art garden was more of what works for me. A little more abstract with these creations.

The second full day of the DC discovery tour started with a look at the White House. You can actually get a lot closer to the "back" than you can to the "front", as there are a lot of gardens taking up space between the building itself and The Mall area. The pedestrian precinct behind the White House also makes a good place for your peaceful protest. Though there are a lot of secret service and police around the area.

Near the White House are a lot of other historical buildings and monuments. They are very big on monuments in DC, at least within the central area anyway.

The "Old" Post Office building is a building that was going to be demolished, but was saved due to the appeals of many members of the public. As a result the building has been refurbished into more of a tourist attraction, though there were some rumors that it will be converted into a high class hotel by the current administration. Internally the bottom level is shopping and eating, with the atrium stretching to the ceiling of the main building. There are offices surrounding this area to make some use of the Post Office building.

There are a series of elevators that take you to the top of the spire where you can look out over Washington DC (though through wire, but it does get fresh as it is open to the elements through the "windows"). This is now the highest lookout within DC with the closing of the Washington Monument to public access. You also get to view the internal workings of the clock and bells.

The National Museum of Natural History was spectacular. Dinosaurs, insects (yes the tarantula and butterflies below are alive), rocks, creatures of the deep. Plus displays of different cultures, different environments, continents, etc all make it a very interesting place. Dodging the hoards of children being (almost) led by carers, parents and teachers was a great way to improve ones reflexes and patience as well.

The American History Museum however was more about the history of the USA since the American Civil War. So pride of place is the flag raised after victory.

But there are other artifacts of the warring period throughout as well.

And USA transportation through the ages.

There are another couple of wings within the museum, but they were closed for renovations during my visiting hours.

The final part of my experience with Washington DC and its Smithsonian and Monuments, were the Washington Monument and the Arlington Cemetery (which as its name suggests, is in Arlington and not DC, though Arlington used to be a part of DC).
The Washington Monument suffered a few years back now from an earthquake that cracked the building and closing it off to the public. As a result it is now fenced off and can only be viewed from a distance. And the scaffold sheath it now wears isn't the most visually attractive way for it to appear.

From the monument, walk past a series of war memorials, past Lincoln, over the Potomac and you approach the Arlington War Cemetery. This place is huge, in fact it is so big and has so many people that they are running out of space. This is apparently causing some angst with what to do with future military deaths. One response in the past was to stop having family members buried there, now it is just military personnel.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of the popular locations within the cemetery. The Kennedys are also buried here and there are memorials for the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger among many others.

But there are so many more museums, galleries, monuments and other sites in DC and the surrounding area to see. I know a second visit with a couple more days would certainly be worthwhile. But it was very enjoyable and the exhibits were fantastic. And having no entry fee is even better.

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