Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part III)

A rainy Saturday was perfect for exploring the Smithsonian Museum of American History (after brunch of course). Like most things in America, it’s pretty huge. We focused on the exhibits on the top floor (The Price of Freedom) which took us on a tour through the war of independence, the 1812 war, the civil war, the wars of expansion, and the Spanish-American war. The exhibit then continues through the world wars, the cold war, Korea and Vietnam right into the present – but we got tired, so will go back to do these another time. What we saw in the first part of the exhibit had certainly put what we’d seen on the mall into context for us.

One thing that struck me as we went around, was just how known American history is: it’s so well documented, in terms of writings and artefacts. I suppose this is due in part to the fact that if you’re conscious of the fact that you’re creating what you want to be an historic nation and system, you’ll be careful to preserve the records of how it was forged. Also, at the time their history was unfolding, the concept of a museum already existed, and thanks to James Smithson’s donation to a country that he had never visited, America soon had the Smithsonian institution to which presidents, those who knew presidents, and even common citizens, could begin sending relics. The Smithsonian visitor centre has an exhibition of such objects at the moment (you can see some online at their site: Souvenir Nation), including shavings of the final railroad tie (or sleeper) to complete the transcontinental railway, locks of the presidents’ hair, and a suffragette pin in the shape of a jailhouse door. In the Museum of American History itself the importance of relics to the early Americans was made clear to us as we stood in front of the original star spangled banner – the one that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore following a successful battle over the British in the 1812 war and inspired the poem which became the national anthem. Bits of this flag are missing as they were cut off in the nineteenth century as patriotic keepsakes – and I don’t mean just the edges, someone even gave away one of the stars.     


There were a few things I hadn’t realised about American history that I learned from the Smithsonian:

1. The 1812 war. I mean, I think I had a vague inkling that there had been a second war between Britain and America but, embarrassingly, this was mostly news to me. The war was entirely separate from the war of independence, lasted 32 months, and was pretty much a draw, with neither Britain nor America losing territory. It was pretty bad for the Indians though – it was in this war that Andrew Jackson destroyed the military power of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It was also in this war that the British burnt down the White House. I’d already heard the story of how the first lady, Dolly Madison, had set the table ready for dinner and how the British soldiers sat down and ate before torching the place, but I hadn’t heard that Dolly also saved many of the White House treasures from the fire.

2. Lincoln was assassinated just a month after his second inauguration.

3. I had thought that America’s involvement with the Philippines stemmed from WWII, but in fact it was one of the theatres of the American-Spanish war of 1898. It also represented America’s desire to build its own overseas empire.

4. After winning the war of independence, George Washington returned to private life on his farm, until America decided it needed a president and called him back. This was pretty impressive to the world back then, and still is in some places; it made us think of the Ibrahim prize that encourages and supports African leaders to step down and move onto other things when their allotted term comes to an end…

Overall I came away feeling a bit more educated, and slightly more able to reflect on the difficult questions posed by America’s history. There’s the question of the nature of the union – how different states are philosophically, especially in their support of states’ rights or their belief in the importance of the nation. There’s the question of slavery – how different was it in fact from the wage slavery of capitalism, and was the war really just about this issue? And then of course, there’s the Native Americans. Pulled into every one of the conflicts, losing land and power as they went, having treaty after treaty revoked. And of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Part of one exhibition down, two and a half floors, sixteen Smithsonians to go!


A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part II)

Having only seen the top of the Capitol from the western side of the mall I was very excited about going to Capitol Hill, and I was not disappointed – just a bit chilly.

Because we approached the Capitol from Eastern Market for a while I wasn’t sure if we were arriving at the front or the back – and in fact, I’m still not sure… Unlike the White House, the Capitol was bigger than I expected. It really is most like a huge French palace, which I found somewhat strange for a country that has been a republic from the beginning. Other things I found interesting were the fact that it is definitely on a hill (in fact there are far more hills in Washington DC than I expected) and that it forms the centre of the city’s gridiron system. That might be why I’m still wondering which is the front of the building, since it opens onto 1st street in both directions…


The area immediately between the Capitol and the mall proper is very attractive, and of course there is an amazing view, all the way down to the Washington monument. With the cherry blossoms still not out though, and the sun rather weakly attempting to get through the high cloud, the whole place looked like the rather foreboding and wintry Washington DC of the House of Cards opening sequence – including the lions.

The mall itself was amazing in its sheer size. In the middle of the city this huge space, lined with wonderful museums, makes clear the planned nature of this city. And it is clearly the people’s space; people use it for jogging, kite flying, and when we were there the mall was also being used for another stage for the cherry blossom festival – this one ‘for kids without hope from kids with hope to spare’. We really wanted to hate it, but it’s difficult to cling onto the English cynicism in the face of 10 year olds singing ‘Tale as Old as Time’.

As it was sunny we didn’t go into any of the Smithsonian museums. I’ve heard it rains a lot in DC in May, so I’m saving most of the museum trips for then. But we did go into the Smithsonian visitor centre. This is housed in what is known as the Smithsonian Castle, which is a good old Victorian Gothic folly that was criticised when it was first built for spoiling the simplicity of the mall. I think that Bill Bryson fondly remembers the Smithsonian when everything was housed in the castle, and we got a good impression of how chaotic this might have been in the visitor centre’s exhibition introducing the variety of things held by the Smithsonian. In a room that reminded me of local museums in the UK, guarded by stuffed animals and birds, there were display cases full of a glorious multiplicity of stuff, each with a label telling you which Smithsonian you could visit for a more contextualised history. From this we decided that we definitely wanted to visit the Air and Space, American History, and American Indian museums. The Air and Space museum certainly seems popular, wherever we’ve been I’ve heard groups of tourists saying they’re going there next.    

Possibly the most exciting thing, for me, on this side of the mall, was the Sculpture Garden. However, I saw no paint whatsoever – wet or dry – so I don’t know what that episode of the West Wing is talking about… It is a lovely space though, especially as it was sheltered from the cold wind when we were there. There’s a water feature, and they have jazz concerts in the summer, and of course there are the sculptures too; they have a nice mix of Rodins and more modern pieces, including one of a hare by a sculptor from Prestatyn – it’s always a nice surprise to find things by your countrymen appreciated in other countries.

There was probably more to explore on the North side of the mall – we walked the south – but by now we were so cold that we really had to call it a day.



A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part I)

It’s hard to describe the experience of walking around the mall. There’s a feeling that it’s all been done before, and any awe you express might be taken as contrived. I’m also well aware that a British audience is automatically somewhat cynical, so any earnestness could lead to a reaction of embarrassment. Then of course, there’s the question of how one, as a non-American, is allowed to feel in the face of all this serious patriotism. And of course, as with holiday snaps, there’s always the fear that this is all terribly boring.

However, I’m going to try, and if you’ve read this far, maybe you’re willing to read a little further…

So on our first proper day in the US we walked around the west side of the mall, where most of the monuments and memorials are, and the tidal basin. But the mall is huge, so we had to wait for a dry weekend to complete the east side – where the Smithsonian and the government buildings are sited. As we began our walk in the direction of the Vietnam and Korean memorials I was somewhat anxious that I wouldn’t feel the requisite amount of awed respect simply because of my feeling that I’ve seen these memorials so many times before in films, documentaries and even cartoons. But, though they weren’t exactly new to me, they were pretty moving. The enormity of events that cause such a number of deaths can really be felt when the monuments tower over you, as the lists of names gradually do in the Vietnam memorial. It’s a similar impression as is achieved by the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and just as effective. The Korean memorial is difficult to capture in pictures, mainly because I found most of its emotional power came from the etched faces of personnel on the black walls behind the statues of soldiers. There is also a sculpture memorialising the women who served in Vietnam and, though sentimental – it rather idealises women as symbols of hope, faith and charity – I found it quite striking nonetheless.

Then of course, we came to the monuments to presidents. We had already seen the Washington Monument – it’s difficult to miss that obelisk, especially from the hill that we’re staying on. In a way it’s a bit of an obvious monument, a lot of height, not a lot of soul, and in danger of appearing compensatory for something, but I’ve grown to be rather fond of the way it’s always there, popping up now and then on the skyline. We had also seen the memorial to the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom of course became presidents. This is a relatively new one I think, and situated on a duck island in Constitution Gardens. But the main monuments to see of course, are those to Lincoln and Jefferson.  

As we walked up the steep flights of marble steps to the Lincoln monument, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all terribly Roman. Far more than the ruins of the Mediterranean, these structures truly let you feel what it might have been like to live among a Roman cityscape. The Lincoln monument even calls itself a ‘Temple’, which must give rise to the question: what is it a temple to? Because obviously it’s secular – the Jefferson monument features writings and speeches of his that stress the separation of church and state in the new nation he was helping to build. And the Gettysburg Address, stressing the sacrifice of men for their human cause, is one of the main focuses of the Lincoln Monument (we had hoped to find some American family forcing their children to recite it, but were disappointed). So they’re temples to the ideals of America, though of course the Lincoln monument can’t help but remind us of how disputed these could be, with the text of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech on the wall opposite the Address. Because the civil war was raging during the election, Lincoln was re-elected only by the votes of the North, and his speech balances a rejection of triumphalism (they were winning) with a clear message of the evils of slavery. We particularly liked:

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So we stood, in impressed silence in both the presidential temples to read all the selected words of Lincoln and Jefferson engraved there. It seemed to us that others were less respectfully thoughtful as they went round their national treasures – the German for monument is Denkmal, which literally translates to ‘think for once’ or at this moment, and I always think this is the best way to experience monuments – but on the other hand, who are we to judge, especially as these monuments are not really ours: the American youths messing about in them are free to enjoy them however they want. After all, this is America.


Less physically impressive, but thoroughly unexpected, was the FDR memorial. Thanks to our GCSE syllabus we knew all about the New Deal and the almost socialist values implied in the aim of full employment. However, I didn’t expect such values to be so celebrated in such a capitalist country. The memorial is like an outdoor museum: you wander through sculpted tableaux of his four terms, reading excerpts from his speeches inscribed on rocks above you, and in the summer you are presumably surrounded by the babbling of fountains, but these were dry when we visited. Fittingly for the only president with a physical disability, the place is completely accessible to wheelchairs and there are displays using braille for blind people.

The final monument to mention is the newest – the memorial to Martin Luther King. There has been some controversy over the inscription on the monument, which was a badly paraphrased quotation from one of King’s speeches. This has now, as far as we could see, been removed. It’s been placed in a lovely spot, on the tidal basin, looking across to the beautiful Jefferson monument. We wondered if this was some sort of comment on Jefferson being an owner of slaves… When you get to the Jefferson monument you can look over at Lincoln’s and see that King’s is in a direct line with it – the slave owner, the slave liberator and the black-rights activist.

So that’s the western side of the mall. We took a break at that point, deciding to come back another day to explore the other side and Capitol Hill.

To be continued… 

Meanwhile, when trying to think of films in which these monuments featured we came up with: Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood, Team America and Legally Blonde 2. Any others?

Spring – a post mainly about the weather…

When we arrived in Washington the city was just emerging from what had clearly been a really tough winter. On our first day our taxi driver concernedly drew our attention to the lack of blossom on the cherry trees and everywhere shops and restaurants had signs up bemoaning the weather while inviting you in for some kind of winter warmer. The enthusiasm for the first signs of spring was obvious – the local news gave daily, if not hourly updates on the progress of the cherry blossom and local weather men got excited about the emergence of the smallest amount of colour in the trees. As soon as the sun appeared the bars and cafes on 18th street set up their terraces and were soon thronged with excited interns and students. True, they were clustered round patio-heaters in their coats, but this was spring!

However, the season has still not quite turned – spring is not yet sprung. Indeed, we have been victims of quite a few false starts. Last Saturday the Washington Post happily proclaimed the ‘first day of spring’; I read this while I watched the snow falling outside my window. Sadly they had to cancel the kite-flying festival that weekend. By Tuesday things were looking better – I had a lovely day walking round the tidal basin and got sunburnt while watching one of the cherry blossom festival’s free concerts down there (check out Wes Tucker and the Skillets if you’re a country/folk/rock fan). But then this Saturday, forecast to be lovely, and looking beautiful from inside, we were fooled into going out without our coats and found ourselves a few hours later shivering in the stiff Potomac wind as we walked up the mall. There was kite-flying a-plenty that day. We took refuge in the Lucky Bar, where beer and quick fried, warm tortilla chips made everything better. Too cold to go and see the fireworks, we decided we’d make up for it on the 4th July.

And it continues to be changeable. Today – of course – we took our coats and ended up having to carry them on our arms round the zoo, while we got sunburnt again. Tomorrow it will be raining and 8 degrees (we’re still working in centigrade thanks to the BBC).

But at least the cherry blossom is making progress. ImageImage

(Cherry blossom outside the Library of Congress and the Catholic church)