Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Washington D.C., Museum Capital of North America

I hope you will forgive me this diversion. I do call myself 'MuseumWriter' for a reason, as it isn't just all about fantasy novels that will never be published.

I have recently (but which I mean a few hours) returned from a long awaited (meaning - roughly - ten years) trip to the national capital (by which I mean the United States capital, as opposed to Ottawa). It was Spring in Washington with the trees budding and the cherry blossoms blooming and half the bloody population of the world there to enjoy both. Not including moi.

I was there for one very good reason. A much better reason than anyone else's could ever be. I was there because, a long long time ago when I was still innocent enough to believe that dreaming something could come true was enough to make it so, I dreamed of visiting the Smithsonian. Apparently I'm still a little kid at heart. Now, at the time, I was too young to realise that 'Smithsonian' actually meant 'eighteen different museums' (Note: it's now nineteen), but it wouldn't of mattered if I had. To me, there are only two types of museums that interest me: Military objects and ancient history. Occasionally I will deign to grace an art gallery with my presence, but this is usually only because said art gallery contains a Rembrant or a Picasso, and I feel duty bound to stop on the way.

If there are no WWII aircraft or Roman pottery, it isn't worth the trip. [I will, also, occasionally deign to visit a country house or estate which are - by and large - filled with 18th Century furniture in various states of repair and gardens not nearly as well tended as they once were - but only for the interest of architecture and a quiet afternoon.

The Smithsonian, of course, encompassed as a whole, has all of the above. But in deference to the fact that I was only 4 days in Washington and that it is suggested it would take the average person 4 hours to see each of the nineteen Smithsonians, I was charged with the difficult task to pick three. The following is a 'brief' account of a pilgrimage to the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center National Air and Space Museum (where they keep the real planes.

National Air and Space Museum, The Mall

I've been disappointed in museums before, but they were always small ones. The Air and Space Museum at the Mall is not small, but it was extremely overcrowded. For and 'air and space' museum I thought there would be more planes and less endless text panels, mosts of which could not be read because there were too many people in the way. I think I spent an hour there before I gave up and fled outside just for a breath of fresh air. The planes they did have on display were uninteresting. The Wright exhibit was well done, I thought, but the space section was certainly underdone and much more focused on space and less on space travel, which I would have expected. Also, all of the IMAX shows were sold out by the time we got there, which was a disappointment because I am sure they were all worth seeing. This is the first museum we went too, and it was a very slow start. I believe museums should have a flows to them, but this one was exhibits in seperate rooms in seperate corners and even the ones beside each other didn't always follow a common theme or progression. The layout was awkward too with the balcony level having most of the exhibits and overlooking the few planes hanging up, but because it was narrow it was very hard to get around the crowds from one end of the building to the other. Mostly I lost interest in fighting the waves of people. Also, pictures were allowed, even with flash, but the way each exhibit was set up it was very difficult to take pictures that didn't come out with glare from the flash or much too dark without it. Many of the spaces were quite dimly lit, though I don't see the reason why (no artefacts to damage) and I found it especially hard to read the text in the Wright exhibit (and there was A LOT of text). We had lunch here, but there was only McDonald's and not an actually cafe, and I don't like McDonald's (also, what kind of message does that send to America?). I had a salad, which wasn't bad, but the sitting area was extremely loud and crowded (echoed in the open area) and we had a long wait just to order and get the food. All in all, one of the worst museums I've been too, and definitely the worst national one.

National Museum of Natural History, The Mall

We did this museum our second day, and although there were no less people around it didn't seem to be as crowded. We had only a short wait to get in through security. There was very little in the museum that I didn't want to see, except the insect and reptile area (not my cup of tea). They also had an exhibit displaying the Hope Diamond, so naturally I had to see that! We did each floor in order starting at ground level. The exhibits followed a clear path and didn't require you to backtrack to see things you missed like the Air and Space Museum, so you didn't need to go against the traffic. Each exhibit also led into the next one quite well, and there was a clear progression of time covering Earth's history. The animal models were all quite interesting and they have a huge collection of skeletons. There were also labs scattered here and there that you could look in and watch workers cleaning bones, or analysing samples, which I enjoyed. There was virtually no interactivity, which I normally love, but didn't miss in this museum. The text panels were short but informative, and easy to read (the lighting was much better here). Upstairs was busier, but there was still a specific flow of traffic to follow. We only had to wait 2 minutes in line to see the Hope Diamond which was very well lit and good for pictures. [on a side note: amazing] We had lunch in this museum as we did at Air and Space, but the cafe here was a proper museum cafe offering a wide variety of options (all mostly healthy besides the pizza) and though it was busy we found a table quite quickly. It was a very good lunch (the best we had all week), though the cost was certainly high, but the museum is free entry so I suppose it balances out. Though I've not visited the others, this is probably one of the best museums on The Mall.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Virginia

We drove out to this museum on Friday. If we hadn't visited the one at The Mall, I don't know it we would have made the trip (it's an hour from Washington in traffic, which there always is), but I wanted to see the good Air and Space Museum, so we went. The building is impressive in and of itself. We got there early, but I don't think it ever gets very crowded because it's such a drive from the city. The museum is free, but parking is $15 and there's lots of it. We started by going up the observation tower, which is seven stories up. It's similar to a control tower, but bigger and had a full 360* view of the surrounding landscape and the Dulles Airport which is next door. You can watch planes take off and land. There was a brief exhibit on the control tower (which you can see from the observation level) with information about radios and signals. Not great, but still interesting. We spend an hour walking around the museum after that. It's easily laid out with a ground floor where all the planes are parked, and a circular walkway above to see the planes that hanging from the ceiling. There's no plane you can't see well from at least one angle. The space is not crowded, as they clearly have room to add more planes, but there were (I think) nearly a hundred on display. There was also a section with airplane engines along one side of the building. The place is divided into 'air' and 'space'. The space section has a full sized recreation of the shuttle with plenty of smaller vehicles and satellites on display around it. Because the space is so open you can walk at will and easily see everything. We took a break to see the acclaimed IMAX movie 'To Fly'. Tickets were less than a regular movie ($8 ea), and the film was 30 minutes. I thought it was quite good, despite being made in 1976. After that we walked around for another hour to see the rest of the planes (the newer section). There are aircraft from early nineteen hundreds just before WWI all the way up to more recent planes like Concord as well as an area on balloon travel. It was well into the afternoon by this point and (again) the cafe was a McDonald's so we decided to go looking for a restaurant. There are some around because of the airport within a short driving distance. The museum was definitely worth the trip, even if the best air and space museum is still in Pensacola, FL.

I will have to go back to Washington at some point and see some of the other museums, like the American History Museum and the Art Gallery. There just isn't enough time to do them all in one trip, but they are all worth seeing.