I was last in Washington DC in 1987 when I won a national competition, the prize for which was a $30,000 study tour of anywhere in the world and I chose the US. I have some wonderful memories of that trip, one of which is the Air and Space Museum. As an ex-pilot I am fascinated by the history of flying, so when we found ourselves in DC last week (following our son who was working there) I made a bee-line for this Smithsonian. I took a million photos, but will only share a couple.
My Dad was in the Royal Air Force and learned to fly in a bi-plane, so I have a fondness for them. This one really surprised me, it’s a Boeing P-12 and was used in combat. I was struck by how adorable it looked, although that cowling denotes quite a big engine.
My Dad was a WWII pilot and he got his license back when I got mine and we flew together for years. He was known for his wild ways (even well into his eighties) and was known as “wild Bill”. When I saw this sign I laughed out loud, because I have read similar notes about him in some of his documents, where he flew upside down around the airfield in the previously mentioned bi-plane (Tiger Moth), which was a dangerous pursuit as they used gravity feed fuel tanks which of course would bleed dry when upside down. He was also reported for flying under the odd bridge…
Mark had never been to Washington DC before so we played at being proper tourists and it was wonderful. It snowed our first night there so there was something quite magical about the beautiful buildings wearing a light dusting of snow.
This is the Eisenhower Executive Office building and is probably my favourite of all the public buildings in Washington.
It is vast and quite magnificent. And yes, I was well rugged up against the cold!
Of course no trip is complete without a quick trip past the White House. I was quite struck by the change in security since 1987, not that I’m complaining, but it does rather spoil the view.
The Capitol Building is also rather beautiful and would have had very busy occupants whilst we were visiting as this is the home of Congress and they were trying (and failing) to avoid a shutdown.
A visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a must in my view. Apart from the confronting view of the epic waste of young lives caused by war, it is the final resting place of some famous people. I was keen to see the graves of John F Kennedy as I have vivid memories of his assassination. This is the only burial place that has an eternal flame from what I could see, and it is, of course, the final resting place of Jacqueline Kennedy and two of their children, who were disinterred from their original tombs and placed next to their father. The gravesite is quite large so I had to use a panoramic setting to fit it in. It is not curved like this in real life.
The gravesite sits below Arlington House, a mansion which is being restored, and has a view back down to the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
The other place to visit here is the tomb of the unknown soldier, although it actually contains four tombs, each one containing soldiers from WWI, WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War. The unknown soldier from Vietnam was later identified from DNA and therefore was no longer unknown. He was disinterred and that tomb remains vacant.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and in any weather by Tomb Guard sentinels. The guards are changed on the hour, every hour, in a changing of the guard ceremony, and when we visited about 3000 school children were there to see the ceremony, so we decided to forego the event. However, we did observe the guard doing the “walk” and were also able to pay our respects to these symbols of all the men and women who gave their lives in war.
We walked back into Washington DC via the Lincoln Memorial and spent quite some time reading the inscription of Lincoln’s second inauguration speech. The reflecting pool was completely frozen over.
Then on to more Smithsonians. The newest one was high on my bucket list. It is the African American Museum and I was fully expecting to feel high emotions, but I found it strangely uplifting.
The building itself is quite different from the other Smithsonians so it really stands out and it has four levels of displays, highlighting the achievements and struggles of African Americans.
This quilt summed it up for me: quilts were made from scraps of worn clothing which were carefully harvested, and given to those who had little. There is a statement that “quilts make community” and the neighbourhoods joined in the quilt making making it a community effort. I was struck by the beautiful stitching but also the decorative elements on what is essentially a functional item. I have to say that having seen this quilt I became quite inspired to make one…
I think I derived the most inspiration in this museum from the visitors. There were elderly African Americans in wheelchairs being shown exhibits and the look on their faces was indescribable. A mixture of pride and delight. I noticed that the young people who were visiting displayed similar emotions and it brought home to me just how important this particular museum is for the American community, irrespective of racial background.
This led me to a curiosity about the genesis of the Smithsonians, so we visited “The Castle” which is actually the information centre, and a Smithsonian in its own right.
Walking through the garden I noticed this eucalyptus cinerea, which is so sought after by natural dyers. The Castle building can be seen in the background.
The inside of The Castle is gorgeous. This mellow stone had us quite intrigued until we realised that it is a faux finish! It’s still beautiful though.
So the original Smithsonian was established with funds provided by James Smithson, a scientist. His will left all his worldly goods to a young relative with the codicil that should the relative die without children, then the entirety of his estate should be donated to Washington to establish a natural history museum. The relative died six years after James with no children and therefore the codicil became operative. Apparently there were arguments as to whether Congress should accept the bequest (!) and it took ten years until U.S. Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution, which was signed into law by President James K. Polk. Someone was dispatched to England and the estate was converted to gold coins which was the equivalent of 1/66 of the entire United States budget at the time. It is interesting to note that James Smithson had never visited the United States and no-one really knows what his motivation was, but what a legacy! the Smithsonians are generally free to enter and hours could be spent in each one. New bequests have added to Smithson’s original one and there are twelve museums.
We also visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden where we saw a car that had a boulder dropped on it, but it was the “Big Man” that blew me away. He’s huge and quite lifelike. You can’t really see his eyes but they are totally lifelike and I think you can see how realistic his skin is. Look at those feet! Mark is there for scale…
One of our favourite spots is Georgetown and we had a lovely time wandering the streets and admiring the old buildings.
Mark found the so called “Exorcist Steps” as they were in the movie The Exorcist and were the steps down which Father Damien Karrass fell to his death. Apparently students in the area charged people $5 to watch the filming from their rooftops. Love the entrepreneurship!
This photo shows how steep they are
And this one shows me trudging my way up.
I was really excited to find this op-shop and it was probably the best op shop I’ve ever been in. Much of their stock is on consignment, so a slightly different business model from the norm. I found a whole rack of fur coats including a rain jacket lined with Sable for $1100. Quite pricey but it was half-price so a bargain! I didn’t buy it because:
- I could never wear real fur, it would make me feel a bit sick
- I’m on the 2018 RTW fast, so no ready to wear for me
- It wouldn’t be cold enough to wear at home, except perhaps when I’m camping
- I’m not sure I could pay $1100 US on a jacket to wear camping!
I did buy four linen, hand embroidered hankies for $1, so I have a souvenir.
Georgetown’s many beautiful buildings made our hearts sing. This one positively glowed with the sun shining on its bricks.
And I loved the sheer charm of this one.
Even the commercial buildings are beautiful.
Washington was a fabulous little interlude in our holiday, and I’m sure we shall return at some point.