Conquering the Smithsonian Museums | The Washington Center

Conquering the Smithsonian Museums

There’s nothing better than being in a museum and hearing the drumbeat of a torrential rainstorm start up on the roof. It transforms those quiet halls from a good place to be, to the perfect place to be. You’re safe inside, as dry as a Sediments of the Midwest exhibit, strolling around, leisurely enjoying your Sunday afternoon... Oh, man, that sounds so nice. I’m going to miss the Smithsonian.

Here’s my write up of its biggest offerings.

Actually, before I get to that, I’d like to first introduce the man who made it all possible; he doesn’t get enough love. Meet James Smithson, a talented English chemist, who lived from 1765-1829. While he never actually set foot in the U.S., he loved the idea of it, the way I love the idea of… Canada, for example. When he died, he left a sizeable fortune to his nephew, having no wife or children himself. However, his will stipulated that if his nephew were to die and also leave no heir, the Smithson estate should go to the U.S. government, for the founding of a free educational institute, dedicated to its democratic roots.

As you might have guessed, James’s nephew died childless, thus leaving behind not an heir but an entire institution, in a country that he, too, never saw. And that is the slightly tragic, slightly fortuitous history of the Smithsonian.

Alright, let’s get to it.


National Museum of Natural History

It should come as no surprise when I say that this museum is fantastic. I’m much more interested in actual history than natural history, but even so, I enjoyed it. The Deep Sea exhibit had tons of cool specimens dredged up from the depths, including a giant squid and a life-size whale, the latter of which dangles precariously from the ceiling.


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The Origins of Humanity exhibit had a huge array of skulls, from the earliest humans to modern man, lots of old tools and some impressive sculptures. One showed an early human pulling a bulbous root from the ground, and I heard someone near me say “Huh, that one’s opening an umbrella.” Yeah. That’s exactly what he’s doing. I forgot, for a minute, that Neanderthals never left the house without their umbrellas.

But that gave me a cool idea for a painting, which I’d bring to life myself if I could figure out which end of the brush to use. It’d be an oil painting of a grumpy, hairy caveman, hunched under a tiny umbrella, waiting at a metropolitan bus-stop, at night, while sheets of rain fell all around him. And there’d be neon signs in the background, reflecting in the puddles by his feet, and one of them would say something like “Evolution? Not in Your Lifetime.”

In 2019, the museum’s full dinosaur exhibit will open to the public, but for now we have to get by with just a sneak peek: a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Triceratops and a cast from fossils of complete skeletons – glorious. The paleontologist inside me wanted to climb up the T-Rex’s back and ride it like a horse. On second thought, that may have been the child inside me. On third thought, is there really any difference?


National Air and Space Museum

This one was cool; I appreciated all the planes and rockets and was fascinated by the authentic USSR nuclear missile standing in the lobby. Reagan negotiated its display with Gorbachev shortly before the collapse of the USSR. Many historians now believe the two events are intimately connected.

All in all, the place wasn’t that thrilling. After spending just under an hour inside, I was ready to leave. And I did. I met Rick and we went on a man-date to see "The Infiltrator," with Bryan Cranston. It was a very good movie. Took a while to get going, but it paid off.

Anyway, I think my favorite exhibit was the Wright Brothers one; oh, and the World War II display. Some photographs taken during the Battle of Britain entertained me for a while.


National Museum of American History

More trains and boats than I was expecting. I’ve always loved the great big ships of the late 18th century (like the kind they have in "Pirates of the Caribbean"), before they got scrapped and replaced with steamships. They were so cool. I checked out some whaling ships; apparently they stank so badly from all the blubber and oil that you could smell one before it was visible over the horizon. I read that on the wall. I wondered what a family dinner at a whaler’s house was like:

“I smell father, he’ll be here by six! Girls, ready your nose plugs!”
“Anna took mine!”
“Mine broke!”
“Well then, you’re just going to have to share; one nostril each. Come along.”

Upstairs, they have a marble statue of George Washington, modeled after Zeus Olympios, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world before some hooligans smashed it up. As such, it’s very Greek. George is depicted in a toga and sandals, seated on a throne, reminiscent of Alexander the Great. But my favorite part is the sheathed sword that he’s offering up, hilt-first, to the viewer. It symbolizes his willingness to hand over power. In my opinion, his leaving office after two terms, despite overwhelming support, is the ultimate testament to the man’s character.


The Smithsonian Castle

Really cool-looking building with beautiful gardens surrounding it, in which I caught several high-quality Pokémon. However, inside there isn’t too much to get excited about. This is where I first learned about James Smithson, but other than that there’s just random memorabilia in glass cases… and a livestream of a panda from the National Zoo that I thought was dead but was actually just sleeping. Definitely don’t plan your day around this one. It’s a stop-over site, I’ll say that.

National Gallery of Art

While not technically a Smithsonian museum, this was a fantastic experience. I’ve heard there are some really good modern art museums out there, and I’m sure there are, but to me the best art is the real stuff. The oil on canvas stuff. The old stuff. Paintings from the Renaissance and the Romantic periods can take my breath away. A red line down the center of a white canvas? Yeah, doesn’t do it for me. And I saw that, literally that exact thing, exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Art (I think one half of the canvas may have been light blue). But the National Gallery of Art had the real deal.


What made my trip here all the more enriching was my iPhone, funnily enough. Whenever a painting or sculpture really struck me (but I had no idea what I was looking at), I’d sit down on a couch (they had a couch in almost every room), Google it, and read about the history or the story behind the painting. Whether it was depicting a moment from a Greek myth or a biblical tale, it brought so much more to the viewing than I thought it would. And I got an excuse to rest my legs.


From now on, whenever I go to an art museum, I’m going to be doing that. There’s no use pretending to understand a painting if it’s going right over your head.


Okay, that’s it for now. See ya next week!


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