Sunday, 1 February 2009

Week 2

An active week, I'm going to go through activity by activity, and they won't all get equal time.


The first thing to mention was a visit to the Supreme Court. It's a majestic and magnificent building, though they wouldn't let me in to most of it - I picked a non-arguing day, apparently (which since I got up early in an attempt to hear an oral argument was annoying, but life, I guess), so they wouldn't let me into the court chambers themselves until quite late in the day. However, the ground floor housed an interesting exhibit on some of the early Justices of the Supreme Court, which both allowed me to learn more political and legal history of the US as well as remind me of some of the major decisions of the Court. For those who don't know, the Court is the final Constitutional arbiter, and some things (segregation for instance [Brown v Board of Education]) have been made illegal not by law but by court decision (the aforementioned case ruled separate but equal wasn't equal and therefore violated the Constitution; in the 19th century on the other hand the Dred Scott ruling upheld slavery). I finished with a coffee in the cafe, and just after leaving I overheard a conversation which annoyed me... not for any political reason, but because it turns out that had I waited a half-hour, I'd have been able to meet Associate Justice Samuel Alito... ah well.

Instead, I headed for Congress. It's got a very impressive underground visitors' centre which is mostly empty and serves as little more than an atrium for tours of the main building itself and for security checks for those who want to go to the House or Senate chambers. I took a tour of the building, which took us into neither current chamber, but into the old House chamber - and demonstrated really rather well why an echo-chamber was a bad structure for a debate-chamber; whisperings and mutterings carry far too well across the floor, and white noice ends up obscuring what's being said. Two guided tours in that room was enough to produce the effect, and the original composition was about ten times greater (plus it must have been packed). However, there is a lot of good artwork scattered around Congress, stained glass, murals, paintings, and statuary amongst it. We weren't allowed to wander alone in any of the areas the tour covered, so we were escorted back to the atrium, and I headed into the unfortunately uninformative museum (or rather, to me uninformative) which did have some nice exhibits, in the forms of some of the Federalist Papers and letters from the Founding Fathers (that is, the original copies).

After wandering for a while looking at these exhibits, I exercised my right as a foreign citizen to not go through a member of Congress (DC has a non-voting Representative, for those who wonder, though apparently Obama wants to amend the Constitution and turn the District into the 51st state) in order to access the chamber of the House of Representatives (the Senate was shut). The room's quite nice, very modern, and has none of the echo-chamber properties. The Representatives weren't sitting, and we weren't allowed cameras, so all there is to say is that it was somewhat sparsely decorated and the desks are all very nice wooden constructions and the de facto motto of the United States (e pluribus unum) is written in stained glass under the eagle on the ceiling, whilst the wall above the Speaker has the de jure motto "In God We Trust" written on it. All very nice, and a thoroughly odd setting for the political mudslinging that seems to go on there.


Ok, not all that much to say here. I went to the National Portrait Gallery-cum-Gallery of American Art (different halves of the same building) but quickly found myself underwhelmed; the only really decently interesting things were the photographic exhibition of various photoportraits with text by the photographers on their styles and manners, and the other was the gallery of portraits of American ex-Presidents, since the texts by each portrait were rather interesting (all put the Presidents in the best light possible, yes, even going so far as to call GWB "bipartisan").

I've also headed to the National Building Museum. I didn't find it terribly good; whilst you could touch things, it wasn't very informative as a museum, and the displays were very badly organised and curated. The majority of the museum was closed, and it seemed to avoid actually having any of the interesting bits of the US architectural landscape on display. On the other hand there was some decent stuff done on the developement of DC as a city and the Mall as the Federal/cultural area it is today; again, badly illustrated again sadly.


First, the Air and Space Museum. A decent museum with some interesting exhibits on US (and Russian) space prgrammes, the race for flight, the early days of air-flight with models of the early aircraft internationally as well as within the US. A very informative mueum without having issues of too few exhibits or poor visual display, probably thanks to the wealth of potential exhibits any museum like this has. It even kept a few moonrocks, one which could be touched. Possibly my personal highlights, however, were the display on Mars, with the obvious soundtrack played loud enough to be heard without taking away from anything else and without making conversation impossible; the other was the use of Monty Python in a display on the universe and how it's looked at (I was wearing my Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt and they had a prism. I was amused), in which they had the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle playing. All very nice, and well done; it amused and worked for young people without dumbing down so much as to annoy older individuals (I count myself as older here without hesitation).

This is all in stark contrast to the American History Museum further down the Mall, which is packed with tourists and children, and does descend to the lowest common denominator whilst alienating those above that level. Whilst some of the galleries are much-lauded, half-hour lines to said galleries put one off strongly and impressively; whilst I did go, I didn't stay long and spent more time shocked than anything else. However, to give it it's due there was a decent exhibition on American science (albeit slightly out of date) which had a nice section on the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robo-road-vehicle race, and on the potential future of automated road vehicles requiring no human control.

The Natural History Museum goes back to form, with a general level of exc
ellence (despite all the Greek vases having been put away for some nonspecific reason) and a variety of well-displayed, well-labelled and interesting exhibits. There were a variety of galleries given over to fossils from all ages of the world, as well as devoted oceanic galleries. The developement of man's charted through the BC-era with some interesting exhibits as well as some videos (relics of the '80s but still decently informative), and the mammal galeries were interesting and well-displayed. The most famous exhibit, the Hope Diamond, is not terribly good, but I did enjot seeing some of the other bits and bobs. However, the most interesting exhibits were the Darwin-year piece, a display of Orchids incorporating quotes from Darwin and other botanists with a lot of interesting information on the evolution of the orchid and it's various forms, which was both beautiful and smelled delightful, of course, with a horde of flowers around the room; the other was the butterfly enclosure, which had so many butterflies in, they were landing all over, right next to me, almost on my coat. Really wierd, being in that environment; just totally out of this world, I think - although walking out into the snow and seeing the Smithsonian Institute on the other side of the mall, across the snow-covered expanse (the photo's in the centre at the bottom).

Finally, just a few lines, because it's a museum I can't really write about. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is powerful, honest, and manages to include all, whilst also noting that the Jews were hardest hit, which is a good achievement. Incredibly moving, and I had to keep stopping as I went round it in order to not cry openly.


  1. I think crying in the Holocaust Museum is OK, its not being affected that one should be ashamed of.

    Why Greek vases in the Natural History Museum anyway?


  2. did they really include "bugger all down on earth" in the musuem? surely that is almost as offensive as Darwin?

    And I have to agree with Mx's comments too.

    I can't see Obama getting DC made into a state, come on, lets give the national hate centre more power? do you think 2/3 of states would vote for it?