Museums by the mile

Wash­ing­ton DC of­fers a cornucopia of fas­ci­nat­ing art and his­tory col­lec­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - EITHNE NIGHTIN­GALE

CHIL­DREN fly kites, fam­i­lies pic­nic and couples walk hand in hand on the green ex­panse that stretches be­tween Capi­tol Hill at one end and the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment at the other.

This is the Na­tional Mall, flanked on ei­ther side by museums and gal­leries, nine of which are part of the Smith­so­nian, the largest mu­seum com­plex in the world.

I am spoilt for choice. Should I search out the Hope di­a­mond in the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, ex­plore the plan­ets in the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum or walk amid Rodin’s sculp­tures in the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum and Sculp­ture Gar­den?

Or per­haps I should check out smil­ing Bud­dhas in the Gallery of Asian Art, the gilded Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery or Nokia-shaped fan­tasy coffins in the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Art. ‘‘Keep your line to heaven — go to the af­ter­life in a Nokia,’’ reads the web­site of the Ghan­abased un­der­tak­ers.

But, want­ing to learn more about the US, I head to­wards the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory. Queues of peo­ple pa­rade past the huge back­lit StarS­pan­gled Banner that was raised when the Amer­i­cans beat the Bri­tish in 1814. Oth­ers pause in front of a Wool­worths lunch counter where, in 1960 in Greens­boro, North Carolina, a group of African-Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents were re­fused ser­vice. Their peace­ful sit-in helped ig­nite a youth-led move­ment that chal­lenged racial in­equal­ity through­out the south.

Clothes fea­ture in many of the gal­leries. There is the top hat worn by pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln on the night he was as­sas­si­nated, dresses from Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, Muham­mad Ali’s box­ing gloves and the fa­mous red shoes in which Dorothy walked down the yel­low brick road.

The new­est mu­seum to be built along the Na­tional Mall is the Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian, which opened in 2004. It is an in­trigu­ing, cur­va­ceous build­ing made of sand-coloured, hand-carved stone. The doors to the east wel­come the ris­ing sun and there is an open cir­cle in the roof, as in a te­pee, to let smoke es­cape. Only there is no smoke.

This is a sleek, mod­ern mu­seum, de­signed in con­sul­ta­tion with Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, which ex­plores the his­tory and cul­ture of tribes such as the Sioux, Navajo and Chero­kee, who oc­cu­pied the con­ti­nent be­fore white set­tlers ar­rived in the 16th and 17th cen­turies.

‘‘Euro­pean treat­ment of Amer­i­can In­di­ans was geno­cide,’’ ex­plains Dean, my Amer­i­can com­pan­ion. There is plenty of ev­i­dence of this. Nine out of 10 Na­tive Amer­i­cans died of small­pox when Euro­peans ar­rived, and the spread of the disease wasn’t all ac­ci­den­tal. Bri­tish troops in­fected blan­kets with the virus.

My guide is a Na­tive Amer­i­can from Bo­livia. He holds up maps to show how the size of ter­ri­to­ries owned by Na­tive Amer­i­cans de­creased un­til peo­ple were squeezed into reser­va­tions. Cer­tain as­pects of cul­ture have sur­vived; 60,000 peo­ple still at­tend the Den­ver pow­wow cel­e­bra­tions, schools teach lan­guages that have been fast dis­ap­pear­ing and, in some in­stances, lands are be­ing re­claimed.

But one mother writes of her child’s dif­fi­cul­ties in be­ing a young Na­tive Amer­i­can to­day. ‘ ‘ My daugh­ter’s got a moc­casin on one foot and a ten­nis shoe on the other. She’s try­ing to bal­ance them out and at 16 years old she’s hav­ing a pretty hard time.’’

Many items such as totem poles, ca­noes and wooden spirit masks are thou­sands of years old but there is other con­tem­po­rary work such as skate­boards dec­o­rated by young Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Some of the tribes have cu­rated their own dis­plays, an in­ter­est­ing and laud­able ap­proach, al­though the amount of ma­te­rial can be over­whelm­ing.

I head to­ward the mu­seum’s Amer­i­can In­dian Restau­rant where there is a fan­tas­tic spread of food from both South and North Amer­ica. Af­ter drool­ing over grilled bay oc­to­pus and toasted leg of pheas­ant, I set­tle for a buf­falo chilli, fried bread with lo­gan­ber­ries and a fen­nel and ba­con salad.

Al­though most museums and gal­leries in Wash­ing­ton are along or near the Na­tional Mall, some of the best Amer­i­can art is to be found in Chi­na­town in the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum and the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery. Both are housed in the Old Patent Of­fice, a fine build­ing mod­elled on the Parthenon that was com­pletely ren­o­vated in 2006.

The Ko­god Court­yard, the build­ing’s in­ter­nal space, is crowned with a huge glass and alu­minium canopy de­signed by Nor­man Fos­ter. This is a great place to re­lax amid the olive trees.

Much of the art­work gives a real in­sight into the nation’s his­tory. Paint­ings by Ge­orge Catlin of Na­tive Amer­i­cans chas­ing buf­falo re­mind us of the tragic eclipse of the na­tive way of life, and early sepia pho­to­graphs of young drum­mer boys be­lie the devas- tation of the Civil War. There are im­ages of the sweep­ing land­scapes of Sierra Ne­vada, abun­dant har­vests in colo­nial New Eng­land, and the gold rush in Cal­i­for­nia. Im­mi­grants are evicted from ten­e­ment blocks in the Lower East Side of New York and a wist­ful woman looks out of the front win­dow of her blue clap­board house in Cape Cod in a paint­ing by Ed­ward Hop­per.

The gallery of por­traits of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents opens with Gil­bert Stu­art’s paint­ing of a stately Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, hero of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, in a vi­brant red and yel­low silkscreen by Andy Warhol, smiles and se­duces in equal mea­sure, and a glam­orous fur­clad woman poses for the AfricanAmer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher James Van Der Zee in his Har­lem stu­dio.

Two tow­er­ing po­lice­man clasp the arms of a small black woman who clutches her hand­bag. It is Rosa Parks, ar­rested for dar­ing to sit in the white sec­tion of a bus in Mont­gomery, Alabama; her ac­tion helped spark the civil rights move­ment.

Pride of place in the Con­tem­po­rary Gallery goes to Nam June Paik for his Elec­tronic Su­per­high­way, a blink­ing, neon-lit in­stall- ation of a map of Amer­ica with each state rep­re­sented by closed­cir­cuit video in­stal­la­tions. Martin Luther King Jr gives speeches on civil rights in Alabama; OJ Simp­son runs a keep-fit class in Cal­i­for­nia; and South Pa­cific is show­ing in Hawaii.

The Phillips Col­lec­tion in Dupont Cir­cle has a more in­ti­mate and tra­di­tional feel. The col­lec­tion was ini­tially brought to­gether by Dun­can Phillips to com­mem­o­rate the death of his fa­ther and brother at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury. A wood­pan­elled room with a stone fire­place is lined with great mas­ters such as Braques and Pi­casso. This room is part of the orig­i­nal house of the Phillips fam­ily and given as a present to the sons.

The build­ing has since been ex­tended and is said to be Wash­ing­ton’s first gallery of con­tem­po­rary art. High­lights in­clude The Road Menders by Van Gogh and The Lun­cheon of the Boat­ing Party by Renoir. Four Rothko paint­ings line four walls in a small room; it’s a med­i­ta­tive space, a tem­ple to this ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist.

At the same time as Dun­can Phillips was es­tab­lish­ing this gallery in mid­dle-class Wash­ing­ton, the par­ents of African-Amer­i­can artist Ja­cob Lawrence were flee­ing seg­re­ga­tion and poverty in the south. Along with thou­sands of oth­ers, they sought work op­por­tu­ni­ties in north­ern in­dus­trial cities left by men who had gone to serve in World War I.

In Lawrence’s paint­ings bold blocks of colour de­pict stooped field-hands march­ing in line, their be­long­ings bun­dled over their shoul­ders. In the north, peo­ple hud­dle over empty plates of food; fam­i­lies sleep seven to a bed and ex­ist­ing work­ers riot, fear­ing competition from the new­com­ers. More pos­i­tive im­ages of chil­dren go­ing to school and men hav­ing the vote sug­gest the jour­ney was worth the sac­ri­fice.

Over the river in Ana­cos­tia is Cedar Hill, the hill­top home of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, an es­caped slave who be­came an abo­li­tion­ist, pow­er­ful or­a­tor and writer.

I climb the 85 steps to the grey brick and clap­board house where Dou­glass lived from 1877 un­til his death in 1895. The house still has many of Dou­glass’s be­long­ings: his wire-rimmed glasses sit on pa­pers on his open roll-top desk. His slip­pers and wooden dumb­bells are placed by his arm­chair in an up­stairs room.

There are por­traits of women suf­fragettes and of Har­riet Tub­man, with whomhe­worked to free slaves in the Un­der­ground Rail­road move­ment.

Af­ter the death of his first wife, Dou­glass mar­ried a white woman, an event that sent rip­ples through Wash­ing­ton so­ci­ety.

At the end of the tour, Chris, the guide, quotes Dou­glass: ‘‘When I ran away from slav­ery, it was for my­self; when I ad­vo­cated eman­ci­pa­tion, it was for my peo­ple; when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the ques­tion and I found a no­bil­ity in the act.’’

Chris turns to the chil­dren in the group. ‘‘How are you go­ing to carry on Fred­er­ick Dou­glass’s legacy?’’ he asks. Si­lence fol­lows. Dou­glass is a hard act to fol­low.

I re­turn to my ho­tel, The Rouge, near Dupont Cir­cle, a lively quar­ter and con­ve­nient for most museums and gal­leries. The Rouge is a con­tem­po­rary, friendly ho­tel that has been re­fur­bished in bold red and black colours with some quirky touches. Greek god­dess stat­ues and red fairy lights wel­come guests. Leop­ard bathrobes and slip­pers keep you warm at night, and pets are wel­come.

As I take a cock­tail in the new bar I re­flect on the brav­ery of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Rosa Parks; the glam­our of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and the skill of Muham­mad Ali. Peo­ple say of Wash­ing­ton that it has all the charm of the north and the ef­fi­ciency of the south (mean­ing it has nei­ther), but no city ri­vals Wash­ing­ton for its museums. si.edu amer­i­can­his­tory.si.edu Amer­i­canin­dian.si.edu Amer­i­ca­nart.si.edu npg.si.edu phillip­scol­lec­tion.org nps.gov/frdo rouge­ho­tel.com

GETTY IM­AGES

Pride of place in the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum’s Con­tem­po­rary Gallery goes to Nam June Paik’s Elec­tronic Su­per­high­way

IM­AGE FO­RUM

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory

IM­AGE FO­RUM

The cur­va­ceous Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian

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