An exhibition called Washington DC

An exhibition called Washington DC

thomas August 30, 2010

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 29,2010)

Footloose in the American capital for one week is a great way to wholesome learning.

Soaking in history and nationalism

Between Capitol Hill to the east and the Washington Monument to the west, the National Mall is a 1.6 km stretch of open space outlined with trees, in the heart of Washington DC. Around it are over a dozen Smithsonian and other museums covering history, science and technology and arts, together making up a round- the- year exhibition of American history and life, smartly laced with nationalism. Designed in the early 18th Century by French architect Pierre Charles LEnfant, the American capital, by legislation, has a low skyline. Washington DC ( DC, because the City was originally a part of the District of Columbia) is mainly shaped by the Capitol building that houses the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, Ministry buildings and the museums. Even the star hotels fall in line with the style, leaving the Washington Monument to be a lone exception, with a height of at 555 feet, offering a vantage view of the City from its observatory. The sprawling presentation of majestic buildings, open spaces, sculptures and landscaping becomes an ideal setting for unhurried absorption of the rich fare on offer for children, laymen and specialists alike. A week can barely do justice.

Within walking distance of the National Mall are no less than six metro stations. The best way to see Washington DC is on foot, though starting with a 20 km appetiser tour on Hop -on Hop- off shuttles , offered at $27 for one day and $35 for two ( half that rate for children up to 11). The guides have panache and patience – and pride in their work and the subjects. The museums and the surrounds are remarkably visitor- friendly and proudly display their wheelchair accessibility. Entry to most museums is free, including special shows and events. Also thrown in free are the essentials for a footloose budget visitor: restrooms and drinking water which is priced in stores almost as much as soft drinks.

The Smithsonian Castle Information Centre is a good starting point. They have maps for everything, and the patience to explain. Flanking this brick- coloured building is an array of gardens, art galleries and museums and the children’s favourite: the Air and Space Museum. Must-sees, across the Mall, are the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum and multiple art exhibitions.

Collectively, the displays are a lesson in presentation and communication. You spin a wheel and reams of history are unveiled. Elsewhere, you open the shutters and snippets from nature are revealed. The Natural History Museum is full of captivating, interactive displays. Visitors enter a room and the display is programmed for them to instinctively raise their glance and be startled by the overhead figure of a leaping tiger. A big hit with children is the Spark Room, the workshop to ignite their creative sparks (Try it, Tweak it, scribbled on the wall), supervised by seasoned child psychologists.

Intertwining history

Slavery, immigration and wars are integral to American history, besides progress in science and technology. These weaves appear repeatedly, and often intertwined, at unexpected places. In the National Portrait Gallery, you learn about a portrait artist, whose wife dies in Philadelphia but the news does not reach him in Washington. That drives him to invent an instant means of communication. The artist’s name Samuel Morse. In another room is the portrait of an imposing theatre personality. But theatre is not what earned him worldwide fame. High cost of producing costumes prompted him to invent a machine that does 90 stitches a minute. No housewife will grudge him naming this popular invention after him: the Singer sewing machine. Elsewhere is a purposefully commissioned portrait of Benjamin Franklin, the same that is reproduced in 100 dollar notes. Turned out in simple clothes, no finery, no wig, he displays his bald head and more importantly a large forehead, to impress the French of his intellect, frugality and reliability to successfully seek funds from them. Such a recounting of history, weaving together episodes from of technology, art and politics, strengthens credibility and delivers the satisfaction of wholesome learning.

The Museum of American History is spread over three floors, each requiring a day to exhaust. There is a rare candour in dealing with the black and white of a violent, conflict- ridden history of just over three centuries. Perhaps, the relatively short span of history, compared to that of ancient civilisations, allows such exhaustive presentation. The story of how the original 13 colonies grew to the current 50 through wars and annexations is narrated with graphs, graphics and touch screen displays to emphasise the demographic diversity. The bravado in the tone is so strong that one forgets to make a moral judgement. The cruelties to immigrants at various stages are dealt with honestly. The historic blemish of slavery is also owned up to, with great candour and in impactful details. The sepia photograph of Slave Gordon, his back resembling the moon surface from lashings, is a testimony to the power of photography. Accounts of childhood on the plantations and recollections of former slaves are equally eloquent. Not very far away, in the old town of Alexandria, 10 km off Washington DC, is an echo of this theme: a white, three-storey building that Isaac Franklin and John Armfield built in 1828 as a holding pen for slaves, brought from North Virginia en route to Louisiana – the stark display board records that over thousands slaves were sold annually.

Icons of nationalism

American Presidency – A Glorious Burden, presents the pantheon of American Presidents. By design or not, there is a smell of leather in the air, adding to the authenticity. Expectedly, Abraham Lincoln gets an elaborate presentation. Unexpectedly though, you have an opportunity to match your palm for size with his. Story of Money traces the evolution of the greenback – a long way from the 17th century when first tobacco and then nails were the currency. Muhammad Alis gloves, Faith Bradyards miniature dolls house, the cut-sectioned 200-year-old two-storey wooden house, rare footages of musical geniuses from Apollo Theatre that became a platform for self-expression by the African American – each is memorable.

Price of Freedom recounts Americas numerous successes in the battle field. Peppered with exhibits – unexploded shells, tableaus of soldiers in bunkers and souvenirs and tabletop national flags for sale – the section is also a superb marketing and recruitment message for the American Armed Forces.

The mantelpiece in the American History Museum is undoubtedly the star-spangled flag. On display in a sealed hall is a 30×34 flag. Raised at Baltimores Fort Mac Henry to celebrate the victory over the Brits on September 14, 1814, the rest of what was originally a 30′ x 42′ flag made of wool bunting and cotton has been cut away as keepsakes by souvenir hunters. The dimly lit corridors leading up to the main viewing gallery tell the story of how the Brits attacked U.S. Navy ships and how Francis Scott Key, from miles away, could only see an American flag, over the ships on fire, inspiring him to script the national anthem. Sound effects and parts of the unexploded shells add to the impact. Past the main viewing gallery, on a touch screen, one can see parts of the flag magnified, its weaves threatened by the ravages of time. American or not, one can only exit the dark, photography- prohibited section, with horripilation. And admiration at how a flag is turned into an icon, despite sharing the red, blue and white colours with many other nations. (Thank you AR, for doing that for the tricolour).

A detour worth taking is the Arlington National Cemetery route. Irrespective of nationality, one is bound to be touched by the poignant poetry of the tombstones, sepulchral white and standing erect against the live lush green. On Memorial Day, there is extra focus on the Cemetery and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the celebrations joined in by families, Washington lowers its guard, somewhat. I took pictures of American troops preparing for the march past and they only looked at me quizzically. Not as colourful or elaborate as our Republic Day parade, the Memorial Day parade on Constitutional Avenue is more informal, with lots of waving and waving back – and smiles. That was a great way to spend my birthday. The delayed present from my son came the next day: a front row seat at the Kennedy Memorial Opera hall for Hamlet presented by the Washington National Opera and directed by Placido Domingo, ageing but still energetic and in control.

The urge to reach art and culture to its people is clear, from the amazing fare offered free at the museums and elsewhere. On 7th Street I came across Ticket Place, a small shop that sells tickets for plays, musicals and other entertainment at half the regular price. An initiative of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, the non-profit organisation tries to make entertainment available to people at affordable cost. An info-rich link that delivers what it promises is While at it, you can also do hotel room bookings. Starting with Comfort Inn at $100 a day, Washington has ample safe stay options at reasonable prices. The smart thing to do is to study the map and pick the stay location based on proximity to a metro station.

Freedom and fear

In the summer months, families of all profiles throng the museums and the Government buildings as do school children, their exuberance moderated by teachers, as they are guided on this virtual study tour with a good dose of nationalism. Today, there is also a rabbi protesting the libertine attitude of the times, to the amusement of visiting schoolchildren at the famous Capitol building  in close up, the domed building in sandstone is even more imposing than the stereotyped symmetric pictures suggest. The security men make no attempt to evict the black- robed protester – they just watch nonchalantly from a distance. Similarly, outside the White House gates and facing it is a small shack and its occupant for nearly 30 years protesting Vietnam, with two squirrels for company. One aspect of democracy that America takes seriously is freedom of speech. America must be the only civilised nation where the Presidents image appears on packets of products such as chocolates and condoms- with some wisecracks on performance, on the latter.

Yet, this freedom co-exists with fear: for all its solemn grandeur, crime lurks around the fringes in Washington DC, just as in other American cities. Surveillance cameras are alive and watching, at street corners, stores and cash counters. Safety on the central streets is linked to daylight – mercifully in plenty in the summer months when the sun sets only at 8.30 PM. The only safe way to see Washington at night is to take the night tour for $30, provided you have a safe way to return home. Muggings are reported daily in local newspapers which put Washington DC homicides at over 8000 since 1980, with more than half of it yet unsolved.

Lunch break

For a budget of $15, lunch can be had at the coffee shops at any of the museums, though most guides recommend the one at the Museum of the American Indian. For inexpensive authentic local food, Bens Chilli Bowl is an eatery with character. If lucky, you could run into President Obama  his last visit to the eatery is documented on YouTube. For sheer variety, the food court at the Union Station is unbeatable, starting with the corner bakery for salads to sandwiches. Through trial and error, my favourite is Sbarros Pizzeria. Skip the pizza and go for the buffet – you can fill your plate from a spread of 40 fresh Italian dishes and pay by weight. A sumptuous non-vegetarian meal can be had for $10. Step out and read newspaper headlines at Barnes & Nobles -arguably the largest bookstore in a railway station.

A stone’s throw away is the postal museum titled, Binding a Nation. Owney the globe-trotter dog extraordinary and mascot of U.S. Postal Service, advertising covers of 1850s promoting restaurants to cigars, Unabomber Ted Kaczyniski…they are all part of the time travel as also the evolution in mail transportation, through cycles, pony mail, motor cycles and trucks. Hassled by rash driving and frequent accidents, early 20th century, the postal department insisted that the truck makers, mainly Ford, gave competent drivers along with the vehicles sold!

In Washington DCs museums, each section is an absorbing world. You reluctantly wake yourself up to the reality of the corridor, and remember Delhis Pragati Maidan and the thermocol cut-outs pasted on ply that masquerade as culture, in those State pavilions. And hope that one day, in place of the crumbling structures we will a permanent exhibition of the Indian legacy and its people, honestly capturing its long and eventful history, orchestrated through some herculean inter-ministerial co-ordination and sublimation of egos…

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