Museums by the mile
Washington DC offers a cornucopia of fascinating art and history collections
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
Pride of place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Contemporary Gallery goes to Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway
The National Museum of American History
The curvaceous National Museum of the American Indian