Ten days sounds a long time by anyone’s standards to visit a major city. Washington DC, however, has blown this theory out of the water. Maybe it’s our love of museums and history but when it dawns on you that there are 19 Smithsonian museums alone, 10 days is a pathetic amount of time. A short list was required. Top of mine of things yet to be seen was the Archives. That is in full …
Archives of the United States of America
Fueled by the film National Treasure and my love of an illegible ancient document, once inside the impressive building we headed straight for the Rotunda. This was an ornate domed hall built specifically to house the country’s most important documents. Despite the traditional, historical look of the Rotunda and the curved murals depicting fictional scenes of the signing in 1776 of the Charters of Freedom, as they are collectively known, they are all sealed in super hi-tech temperature, air and light controlled cases.
The initial queuing for about 10 minutes was very organised then the system seemed to be a bit of a free-for-all. The crowds just swarmed towards whichever document they wanted to see first with a security guard yelling, “No photography and no lines”. The no photographs made complete sense but the “no lines” when you are waiting to get sight of said precious document seems a bit harsh. We shuffled along trying to look like we were not “in lines” and got our close up view of the original Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and The Constitution. The Declaration of Independence was in pretty bad shape considering it’s importance. Among other storage misdemeanors by the Founding Fathers, it had been hung opposite a window in the National Portrait Gallery for around 30 years in direct sunlight. Now it is protected by a $3 million dollar sensor system evolved by NASA. That should do the trick! The other two documents were in much better conditional but much less sought after to see. It must be Nicholas Cage’s influence!
The three documents steal the show a bit but the full catalog of the Archives consists of 10 billion data records, 12 million maps, charts and drawings, 25 million photographs, 24 million aerial photographs, 300,000 reels of film, 400,00 video and sound records and 133 terabytes of electronic data. Sorry to be a bit of a stato but we found these figures staggering. We walked through some exhibitions in the Public Vaults where they showcase a selection of these documents. Presidential documents, war telegrams, Nixon’s resignation letter, the patent for Edisons’s light bulb, the Zimmerman telegram (a coded message from Germany to Mexico during WW1 proposing a military alliance against the USA) and too many others to mention individually. I have been reading about this decoding of messages in WWI in a book I currently have on the go. The USA nearly didn’t get to hear about this telegram because the allies didn’t want it to filter back to Germany that they could decode their messages.
I think for me the most impressive document I saw was one of the 4 original copies of Magna Carta dated 1297 which is on loan to them from David Rubenstein who paid $21.3 million dollars for it. Evidently, Thomas Jefferson referred greatly to Magna Carta when drawing up the contents of the Declaration of Independence. It was so legible (albeit latin) even the emblem on the wax seal was more or less complete. As such, the document didn’t seem to stir up much interest unless a tour guide was escorting a group of visitors. This is perhaps slightly unfair to US citizens because overall we have been in awe of the way even the youngest visitors can reel off a list of Presidents, dates of significant battles/evens in US history and basically fly the flag. We don’t seem to adopt the same sense of national pride somehow in the history of our Royal family/Prime Ministers and important dates (with the exception of 1066). Despite the controversy of it’s origins/accuracy, would we fly the Union Jack outside our home or be embarrassed or worried about the consequences?
When we reached document overload we headed for daylight and the humidity of the outside world. Time for refreshment in the Sports Tavern just off Pennsylvania Ave. A cold beer and good food along with wall to wall TVs. I think we were the only ones facing the football screen but hey!
Smithsonian – National Museum of American History
Just a 5 minute walk was the second place we thought we shouldn’t miss. Once again there were a huge number of galleries and we needed to be selective. We headed for the top floor and the Presidency gallery. There was so much to read and so many historical items, including Abraham Lincoln’s top hat that he was wearing the night he was assassinated. Personally I didn’t realise so many Presidents had died in office, eight in total (four by natural causes and four assassinations). Jon toured round some of the WWI and WWII areas while I went and had a girlie moment looking at the ball gowns of the First Ladies. A couple of the very early First Ladies were only 21 years old. Those cradle snatching early Presidents!
We toured around some other galleries about the emancipation, the Star Spangled Banner and weirdly a case exhibiting Prince’s yellow guitar which was very popular and too many other things to list. It certainly had been a full on day for information and, as always, this blog will hopefully trigger some of that information when we read it in years to come. It has probably been over factual but I do get carried away by so much interesting stuff.
A JWalking DC
We are always trying to get a fair mix of inside and outside attractions so we planned an outside day walking around the centre of DC just to see what we could stumble across and where we could get lost. Sometimes it works out really well to have no route or agenda and just keep your eyes open. These are a few of the highlights:
Battle of the BBQs – We started our random stroll on Pennsylvania Avenue and headed towards the rear of the White House. The first thing we came across were barriers across the road sectioning off the street for an entrance to a Battle of the BBQs event. There must have been around 250-300 stalls all heating up their different styles of BBQ and different types of food. Entrance was $15 each for which you could sample food, meet celebrity chefs and get recipes. Later in the day there was going to be live music. As it was only 10am we passed on this event and walked along the exterior of the fence sympathising with the hundreds of staff tending their BBQs in temperatures about 32 degrees.
Willard Hotel – As we neared the end of Pennsylvania Avenue there was a swanky looking hotel. The plaque outside recorded some of it’s infamous history. Martin Luther King Jr wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in his hotel room there. Most Presidents have either stayed there or met guests there. Abraham Lincoln even lived there for a month before his inauguration. Other famous guests have been Charles Dickens, Gloria Swanson, the Duke of Windsor and various treaties have been signed or drafted there.
Lafayette Plaza – Just across the street was this Plaza. It is a small park at the rear of the White House grounds adjacent to a pedestrian street swamped with Secret Service personnel. The tourists love to photograph anythings we Secret Service on and we got caught up in the moment.
As before, when we had viewed the White House from the front, it seems small and fairly insignificant compared to all the grand museums and monuments. Not sure if Mr O was home. Starting to pack maybe.
Renwick Gallery – Just as the secure pedestrian road rejoins the main road we found this gallery. I had read that this building had been rescued from being demolished by Jackie Kennedy. Good job Jackie. It was a great building and the exhibits were contemporary pieces and quite unique.
The Lockkeepers House – The remainder of our JWalk was re-visiting places we just wanted one more glimpse of apart from finding this little house. In the early 1800s when there were canals in central DC, this house stood on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It was abandoned in 1855 but renovated in 1903 for the Park Police to use It has now fallen into disrepair again and looks very sad and unloved. Perhaps it should be brought up to spec and opened as an exclusive Airbnb?
Tired JWalkers then flaked out on the grass by the Mall for one last time in the sunshine.
Bye bye DC
I am not sure if I have included this in my previous DC blog but 5 years ago (when we had a home) I bought Jon a Lonely Planet Guide to Washington DC. It was somewhere he had always wanted to visit and I thought this might spur us on to make the trip. The book ended up at the charity shop with most of our other possessions but he had been so right about it being a great place to visit. Having said that, I don’t think I would want to only visit DC in one trip. In some ways it feels like a little historical and political bubble of the USA – not in the real world at all.
Time for one last lovely Amtrak ride from Washington DC to Newark, New Jersey where we were staying over before flying to another country. Many questions remain unanswered:
- Where did those 86 days in the USA go?
- What is a gyro?
- Will we be back?
- Did we eat too much rubbish?
- Who shot JR?
- Should I have eaten a bagel?
- What is pastrami?
- Will I be able to choose a film on the flight?
Answers to these food and non-food related questions may (or may not) follow in a blog to follow.
24.6 – 29.6.2016