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…

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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.

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

  1. I have since found out that the Mall boasts not one, but two sculpture gardens. The one we saw is smaller than the one belonging to the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the mall. Which explains how they fit a jazz band (summer) and ice skating (winter) into it. This might also explain the WW wet paint story…

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