Friday, March 31, 2017

A Day for Americana in the US Capital: Museum of National History and National Archives

Wednesday, Mar 15, 2017: Washington
(A Day for Americana)

We devoted this day to Americana. Awaking in Heather’s home, we were delighted at the prospect of getting a ride into the city with her as she and Maria had planned to drive to work. But first breakfast: Heather had toast with jam and butter ready for us and with some coffee, we felt ready to face the day. She and Maria dropped us off at the entrance to the Metro at Farragut West from where we rode to the Smithsonian Metro stop. Our first port of call was the Museum of National History on The Mall. Because we entered it from the Constitution Avenue side, we did not see the Mall. The day was still cold and very grey—it made sense to spend it in a museum and thankfully, the capital has some excellent ones.

Exploring the Museum of National History:

            The museum opened at 10.00 am and we were there just after at about 10.15, when there was already a crowd and a line outside the main entrance. Security clearance always takes ages in these buildings--a big hassle and a real mood-spoiler. Still, better safe, I suppose, than sorry.

            When we did get into the museum, we found that there was a highlights tour at 11. 30 am. Llew and I decided to join it. That would leave us an hour to wander about on our own. Using the museum brochure and the guide books we had carried, we made our way to the top floor first and thought of finding our way downstairs to the most important items. In total, on our own and in the company of the tour guide, this is what we saw:

1.     The Gunboat Philadelphia which went down in the Revolutionary War after being struck by a cannon ball. You can see the entire boat (pulled out of Lake Champlain in Vermont) with the cannon ball still stuck in its side.

2.     Lincoln’s Top Hat (worn on the evening he was killed at Ford’s Theater).

3.     Jefferson’s lap writing desk (a precursor of the laptop!).

4.     Archie Bunker (and Edith’s) armchairs and coffee table from the 1980s hit TV show, All In The Family.

5.     Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves.

6.     Original puppets Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

7.     Julia Child’s entire kitchen from her last home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

8.     The original lunch counter from Woolworth’s in Greenboro, North Carolina, where the lunch-time sit-ins had continued for three whole months during the Civil Rights Movement. 

9.     Inauguration Ball Gowns of every American First Lady from Mary Todd Lincoln to Michelle Obama. (Melania Trump has yet to submit hers for inclusion). I particularly loved Hilary Clinton’s.

10.  Porcelain china dinner sets designed for the White House by every First Lady in America.

11.  A ship’s surgical set from the 1800s that contain a real saw with which limbs were amputated (without anesthesia).

12.   Clinton’s saxophone.

13.  A portion of the original Berlin Wall.

14.  Dorothy’s Ruby Red Shoes from the film The Wizard of Oz.

15.  A most unusual seated sculpture of George Washington wearing a Greek toga.

16.  The Biggest highlight of them all (and we saved the best for last), the original Star-Spangled Banner.

The last item requires a bit more commentary. It is the original flag that flew over Fort McKinley during the war of 1812 when the American Revolutionaries received a thrashing at the hands of British troops. Expecting the American ‘stars and stripes’ to be lowered by the morning, the poet Francis Scott Keys awoke to find (through his eye-glass) “that our flag was still there”. His joy resulted in the penning of a poem which eventually developed into the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. This original flag, mammoth in its dimensions, is now placed in a specially-constructed, climate-controlled room under very dim lighting (to ensure that the colors do not fade) and left open to the public with the words of the entire national anthem projected on a screen at the back. Bits from it that were cut off and given away as souvenirs, are missing and attempts are still being made to find them. Meanwhile, the person who sewed the flag, Mary Pickerling, with her two daughters and daughter-in-law, are revered by history and accounts of their lives and the sewing of the flag are available in the same room (where photography is strictly prohibited). We thought that this museum was superb for any history buff, for anyone who wishes to know something more about our country and for anyone who wishes to see how carefully we preserve those items that speak to our past with all its flaws and its failings.

Needless to say, we were starving by 1. 00 pm and decided to go in search of lunch.

Lunch at Paul’s:

I have always been a huge fan of the Belgian patisserie chain called Paul’s to which I had become endeared when I lived in London. In particular, I adore their hot chocolate and their almond croissants (which I have consumed by the hundreds during my European travels). I have always wondered why Paul has no American presence and when they will consider crossing the pond to open a shop in the US. So, imagine my delight when I discovered that Paul is alive and baking in the capital! Of course, I had to get my croissant and hot chocolate and with Llew as my partner in crime, off we went to the shop (a short ten minute walk away) and there we found it! Eureka!!!

Sadly, Paul in the US does not sell hot chocolate! What???? I was heartbroken. Even worse, their last almond croissant had just sold off—all they had was a chocolate almond croissant which we grabbed and shared. We also bought a slice of quiche each and ordered coffees instead of cocoa. It was small compensation for the kind of meal of which I had dreamed all morning! Still, at least it was a genuine European meal and I polished off every crumb from my plate.  Fortified, we decided to move on to the second item on our agenda on our day devoted to Americana.

A Tour of the National Archives:

Continuing with our determination to see places neither one of us had seen before, we crossed the street for, most conveniently, the National Archives building stood right there in front of us. Again, getting in proved odious, for we had to wait for a while as only a limited number of people are allowed into the building at any given time. After what seemed forever, we made our way through a side entrance of a handsome Neo-Classical, marble-clad building into the interior, where we joined another queue.

The greatest treasures of the National Archives are just three items: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights. Can you imagine building an entire structure to house just three bits of paper??? Well, there you have it. In a grand building with a huge main hall constructed in a Rotunda (thanks Andrea Palladio for giving us the concept of the Rotunda that is so ubiquitous in Washington DC), we stood in line to see these three most seminal of democratic documents. There is strict security at every turn and strict rules prohibiting photography. This is what the guard on duty told us: “There are three rules here regarding cameras—No Photography, No Photography, No Photography. And for those who do not understand, no pictures can be taken at all, of anything!” Wow!

Well, the documents are faded, to say the least. Everyone looks long and hard for John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence and it is a good job he wrote such a huge one because it seems to be the only one that has survived the test of time. Even that has suffered fading, but the grand old J at the beginning of his first name is unmistakable. The rest are well…barely discernible at all. We moved from one glass case to the next, braving several heads in front of us, until we saw them all—it took us no more than ten minutes really to see the three.

And then, we were out of there. We found some good exhibitions in other halls which also had some wonderful documents that are part and parcel of our history—but we did not have the time or the energy to see any of them. I was particularly fascinated to see The Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 that set all slaves free. But there were many important letters and edicts pertaining to Civil Rights, to Womens’ Rights, etc. that are indeed a gold mine for any buff of American History. Llew and I loved every moment of it all and sincerely wish we had more time to peruse them with the attention they deserve.

We then took the metro back to Farragut West where we to met Heather and Maria who drove us back home to Heather’s place in Silver Spring—but not before we stopped en route at a Thai restaurant to pick up a ton of food.

Dinner was sorted as Heather put out the take-out containers of Chilli Beef, Thai Green curries, flat rice noodles with shrimp and Thai Fried Rice. Everything was finger-licking good and we were pleased that we were able to eat so much Thai food (one of our favorite cuisines) on this trip. Not long after, we decided to call it a night.
Until tomorrow, see ya...


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