Sunday, June 30, 2024

Art & Architecture in Washington DC

Trip date: September 2023

There is so much to do in DC that it took me a bit to narrow down what I wanted to see, having just 2-full days. On my last visit, 17 years ago, I had spent a lot of time on the Mall and the various monuments, gone to the Holocaust Museum, and visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 

When one of my friends, who works with the Smithsonian, offered to arrange a private 1-hour tour of the National Portrait Gallery for me I was ecstatic! On my first morning in town I met my docent Mary Ellen inside the main entrance and we immediately set off for what she felt were some of the highlights of the museum.

She started by telling me a little history of the building itself; dating from 1836 and built in the style of Greek Revival architecture, it started as the U.S. Patent Office. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, worked in the building as a clerk around 1855, during the Civil War the building was used as a hospital where poet Walt Whitman read to injured soldiers, in 1865 Lincoln held his inaugural ball here. It was almost demolished and turned into a parking lot in 1958 save for President Eisenhower giving it to the Smithsonian. 

Mary Ellen then led us up to the 3rd floor, to the 20th Century Americans hall. Our first portrait, in the 1900-1930 room, was in of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, painted by Edward Hughes. 


Some of the other pieces in this room were a self portrait by EE Cummings, a sculpture of Gertrude Stein, and a portrait of Alice Dunbar-Nelson who was one of the first generation of African Americans born free in the South. She was a poet, and a lifelong activist against racism and sexism. I was really liking Mary Ellen's taste!

Making our way to the 2000-Present rooms we viewed the incredible portrait of Michelle Obama, painted by Amy Sherald. Obama is such a strong and positive role model while being stylish and smart, it felt powerful just to see this piece in person and it was emotionally moving for me. 


On the 2nd floor we viewed "The Four Justices" featuring Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor before entering the large galleries of America's Presidents. 

Only the National Portrait Gallery has a complete exhibit of all 45 Presidents (besides the White House). Mary Ellen pointed out the ones she thought were unique and interesting, along with coins and sculptures, throughout the rooms. I really liked the full length portrait of George Washington done in 1796 for the Marquis of Lansdowne, and also the “cracked-plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln from 1865 and taken just weeks before his assassination.

Downstairs on the First floor we viewed the massive curved painting "Grant and His Generals". The artist painted each general in life while they were in the field during the Civil War in 1865. It includes George A. Custer and is thought to be the only life portrait painted of him.

And of course we saw the portrait of James Smithson, the British scientist who left his estate to the United States, to be called the Smithsonian Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

We covered so much of the NPG that day! What was planned to be an hour tour ended up being over 2 hours! It was absolutely fantastic and I was so grateful to Mary Ellen and all her knowledge (and to my friend for arranging it!). 

The other museum that was a do-not-miss for me was the National Museum of African American History & Culture. There is no charge but you do need to reserve your free timed entrance ticket in advance. Tickets are available 30 days out, and any same-day availability is released at 8:15 am EST on the website.

The building sits alone on a grassy lawn, the Washington Monument visible to the side. I found the building to be incredibly striking; the shape and texture seemed very unique, not pretty in the conventional way that many museums are. The entire facade is wrapped in ironwork. Bound in iron? I don't think that is coincidental. 

Inside, I inquired about where they recommended starting my visit and was surprised to hear that the exhibits start on the bottom level, which is actually in the basement, and continue up, in chronological order.


It's dim and a bit cramped when you enter Court 3 which is titled Slavery and Freedom 1400 - 1877. Here you learn about the beginning and the regulation of the slave trade through a series of exhibits featuring objects, artifacts, and first-person accounts. The resemblance of the hall to the hull of a ship was not lost on me. And even though you know the history, it's shocking and incredibly emotional.

Making my way along, I walked through galleries on the Revolutionary War, the cotton trade, domestic slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation. All containing personal stories and artifacts. So many atrocities, so much pain, so little hope, and yet people continued on. At the exhibit titled The Paradox of Liberty I stood for a long time, looking at the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Here is one of the Founding Fathers, who led the creation of the Declaration of Independence, yet also a slave owner.

And not just a few slaves by the way, Jefferson is known to have had 609 slaves, including his 6 children born by his slave Sally Heming; those children also became his property when they were born. The wall of bricks behind the statue of him contain the names of the 609 people he owned. The contradiction is so blatant it's hard to take in. In fact 12 of the first 18 Presidents owned slaves. It's a shameful history. 

Court 2 is called Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 - 1968 and the first thing that caught my eye was the re-creation of a diner lunch counter. 

When you sit at the interactive counter, "placemats" appear with "menus" of movements and actions that you can choose to join. As you are walked through the repercussions Black people faced for standing up for their rights, you had to answer if you would go through those experiences with them or if you would turn your back. It's a time for serious internal conversations with yourself.

They also had the original draft of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech behind glass. It's even more powerful when you are surrounded by the history of slavery and oppression.

Court 1 is titled A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond and is filled with events and movements around the US in recent times. When I finally reached the exhibit on Barack Obama I just had to cry. It felt like our country had come so far but it just wasn't far enough as we know from current events. 

I had been at the museum for over 2 hours and it was now closing time, I hadn't even had a chance to explore the upper floors or the special exhibits. Luckily I did have a little time to go into the Contemplative Court. This gorgeous room is filled by a waterfall that is continuously falling from a skylight in the center of the ceiling. The water is loud enough to drown out noise around you while at the same time filling your ears with a rushing sound that is comforting and calming. It's truly an oasis for the soul. 

It had been right around 100 degrees F the for all 3 days I was in DC so spending time in multiple museums was perfect for beating the heat. But on my last day I decided to take one of the trolley tours around the city. I went with Old Town Trolley Tour as it was convenient for the time I wanted to go and they hit all the highlights in town (would have been even better if they were air conditioned!). 

It's a hop on/ hop off style of tour, but I just rode it around the full 15 spots, so perfect if you don't have a car! And the driver had lots of interesting things to share about the buildings and the history of DC. I thought they did a super job. 

And before I left for the airport that evening, I walked the 4 blocks from my hotel The Willard Intercontinental to the White House. Knock! Knock!


All WA DC photos here.

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Art & Architecture in Washington DC

Trip date: September 2023 There is so much to do in DC that it took me a bit to narrow down what I wanted to see, having just 2-full days. O...

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