National Museum of African American History & Culture

From inside the museum, overlooking a field of flags with each one representing a death in the United States from COVID-19, over 700,000 in all.

A couple weekends ago my super amazing girlfriend and I finally got to go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and wow it was phenomenal. It was thanks to the diligent efforts of my super amazing girlfriend that we got to go at all, since she managed to get us tickets. We didn’t actually get to see a whole lot of the museum. All the people we talked to who had visited warned us that it was immense and expansive and would take a whole day at least to see everything. We dismissed these people as less experienced museum-goers than we were. However, they were right. We saw a fantastic amount of artifacts and history and culture and only scratched the surface.

When we entered the museum, the docent who greeted us suggested we start upstairs, in the culture section, because the downstairs history section was “a little crowded.” So to the very top we went, and the first gallery we saw was an art gallery. This was a fantastic collection of art, with the majority (from my impression) from the last two decades or so, but with a selection from the 20th century as well. A running theme of this blog post is going to be that I will have to take many more looks at this museum. Just now, looking at the above picture I took of “The Wives of Sango” by Jeff Donaldson, am I noticing that they are armed with rifles and have bullets around their waists. The docents in the art gallery had to regularly remind people to stay at least a foot or so away from the art; clearly people wanted to get up close and intimate with the works on display.

I’m trying to come up with something to say about the museum other than “wow” that isn’t entirely reductive or which stray into something like a liberal gaze. I was thoroughly embarrassed by the fact that as I went through the art gallery, it was difficult to tell what era each piece was from without relying entirely on the accompanying plaque. There were a number of repeating themes, which I took as speaking to the déjà vu of the Black experience in the United States. It is not a positive sign that icons such as Harriet Tubman, depicted above in “I Go to Prepare a Place for You” by Bisa Butler continue to resonate. My picture above of course fails to do it justice, but it is an incredibly constructed quilt drawing on a whole range of inspirations which, in its presence, creates a very powerful effect. You have to go see it, and I will make sure to go see it again.

After walking through the art gallery, we stepped into the light into a huge display of artifacts from over a century of Black music and musicians. When you step through the door, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac El Dorado greets you, but the sheer number of artifacts they have is hard to believe. I was blown away by how much they had to try to tell even a small fraction of the story of the African American cultural experience. That was an absolute hoot walking around and seeing as they trace the different threads of music and popular culture, and explaining how each era responded both to what had come before and the external forces that both attack Black culture and mined it for its own use.

We had barely scratched the surface of these two galleries before we both checked the time and figured out that something like two hours had passed I think. We decided to take the elevator down to the bottom floor where the line to the history section begins. It was quite a line despite the museum being at limited capacity. For those that haven’t been, after getting through the line you descend another three stories down to the very bottom of the museum, and then walk your way up through African American history. It begins by discussing the early aspects of the Atlantic slave trade. One of the most powerful pieces that I saw there was an amulet in the form of miniature shackles. It was from the Lobi people of what is now Ghana, and I was just blown away by what it meant about the deep effect this evil trade had on the people it touched.

The amulet is at the top, with child-sized shackles below it.

We only managed to get through until about 1950 as we proceeded through the history. One of the areas I learned the most about was with slavery on the gulf coast, and about how the history of colonization there and the different communities built by the native people of the region alongside freedom seekers there. That gave me a much better understanding of Black culture in the gulf coast region, though clearly I was only able to pick up the tiniest of details and I need to learn more. What I appreciated about the museum is that they told the personal stories behind the objects and artifacts that had collected, and used those stories to construct their history. They also did not shy away or attempt to sanitize any portion of the history, showing pictures of lynching and violence perpetrated against Black peoples throughout American history. I regret that we didn’t have more time to absorb it, staying at the museum until close. I look forward to the next time I get to visit and I hope every American can do the same.

Cat Café 5

Yes, dear readers, we are already on Cat Café 5. Last Friday, in our ongoing efforts to truly absorb the cultural sights of our new Alexandrian home, we went to the extremely cute Mount Purrnon Cat Café and Wine Bar. As you can tell from both the opening sentence of this paragraph and also of course being a long-time reader, dear reader, this is not my first experience with cat cafés and I am well placed to give you my review of this one.

My review: it was great! My super amazing girlfriend discovered Mount Purrnon by just walking around Alexandria one day and spotting the sign. It was instant love. First of course the name is a presidential pun and that is almost guaranteed to win my super amazing girlfriend’s favor. Second, their logo and (as of this writing) front page picture on their website feature a cat in a tricorn cat, which is exactly the right kind of twee to send her over the edge. And finally, the pièce de résistance, the coup de grâce for our feelings about the place, was the fact that we are very much in the market for a cat to adopt and so we have been thinking about cats a lot.

Cat mugshots

Our most recent cat café experience before this one was Crumbs & Whiskers, and while Crumbs & Whiskers is an excellent cat café that I can personally recommend, the experience here at Mount Purrnon was much different. Crumbs & Whiskers would also like you to come and fall in love with a cat and take it home, but they have aggressively optimized for the perfect instagram experience. Mount Purrnon has been open for about a year, and while they also have an excellent instagram, they haven’t gotten anywhere close to that point yet. They in fact reminded me a lot of Crumbs & Whiskers when they had only been open for about a year, so who knows what the fullness of time will bring.

Mount Purrnon is split into two levels, with the ground floor being the wine bar that is in their name. They also serve beer, cider, food, and dessert. Going to Mount Purrnon was for my super amazing girlfriend and me our big Friday night out, so we came early to get a drink before our appointed time with the cats. That was great! Then we head upstairs to meet the cats. We had the place to ourselves, because for some reason our version of a big Friday night out was not the same as everyone else’s. It was a very chill experience, with our non-feline hosts popping in only to make sure the cat’s food was topped off. So my super amazing girlfriend and I got to just hang out with all the cats and really get a taste for their personality.

One unfortunate thing for our particular visit is that the cats had, right before we ascended the stairs to the cats, been in a cat fight. This put a number of the cats on edge and also meant another number were hiding underneath one of the chairs. This is simply the nature of cats. About half the cats in the place when we visited had recently come from a hoarder situation, and the socialization aspects of cat cafés had yet to take full effect. But this is one of the points of visiting a cat café, to give the cats some practice being around a variety of friendly humans that just want to give them pets!

Nonetheless we had a great time hanging out with all the cats. There were plenty of toys and plenty of cats and plenty of time to see how each of them are. We went home talking about which of the cats were our favorite and the next morning we put in an application to adopt one! By the time you read this we will potentially be happy new cat parents, and then this blog will go from being purely a tour of every single Smithsonian to being an endless stream of cat photos!

Carlyle House

The man himself (a picture of him anyways)

Reading this week:

  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Last weekend, on a gorgeous day, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to go visit the Carlyle House. The Carlyle House is an absolutely lovely little historical house/park run by Northern Virginia parks located here in our new hometown of Alexandria, VA. It is also the former home of John Carlyle, a wealthy early Alexandrian who showed off to everybody by building the first stone house in Alexandria. It used to be on a riverfront property, but now it fronts Lee Street, which I am a little stunned hasn’t been renamed by this point.

The house tour is pretty great and at $5 it’d be a bargain at twice the price. Besides it’s age, it’s claim to fame is being the site of the Congress of Alexandria, when some colonial governors got together to talk about how to fight the French and Indian War. The house itself has been through a lot in the intervening years, though I found it very interesting that the room pictured above, which held the congress, had been reserved as a tourist destination throughout most of its existence, even while the rest of the house was tenements.

Our redcoated mannequin friend above is meant to represent Major General Edward Braddock. Our main man Ed here called the congress when he was sent to prosecute the aforementioned French and Indian War. The congress happened in Carlyle’s House because Ed had, upon arriving in Alexandria, promptly quartered himself in the finest house in town, ie Carlyle’s. The running theme of much of the house tour is that John Carlyle would become (according to the totally unbiased tour guides at Carlyle House) an important and instrumental patriot in the American revolution mostly because Ed Braddock was a massive asshole and terrible houseguest. This is the nitty-gritty, people-centric type of history I do love to see.

Speaking of people, another aspect I liked about the house tour is that I think they approached presenting the history of slavery on the site very well. Slavery was presented as an integral part of the history of the house, instead of an addendum, and unlike some other places they didn’t feel the need to pat themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum. As you can see on the sign pictured above (far from the only one, I promise), the museum gave the names of enslaved persons when possible and treated them as their own people. As I just described in the preceding two paragraphs and unsurprising in a place named “Carlyle House,” they’re still doing a version of Great Man history, but we’re getting to a better place I think.

And, uh, yeah. That’s about what I have to say about the place. They also have some very lovely and I think ahistorical gardens in the back, but they’re nice to walk through and you don’t have to pay the admission fee to do so. My super amazing girlfriend and I are excited to be settling into our new home of Alexandria and are trying to make sure we explore around here instead of only being drawn (as loyal readers of the blog have seen and will see again) the wonderful Smithsonians on offer up in DC. We gotta embrace our new identities as Virginians!

Give a Man a Cow

Reading this week:

  • Congo by David Van Reybrouck

When I want to remind myself to do something, I either open up a tab and type in a google search or else send myself an email. This blog post is mostly for my own benefit (all these blog posts are for my own benefit), because writing it will let me close a tab I’ve had open for I think about a year now. As documented elsewhere on this blog, I think about international development a lot, and in this post I am working through some thoughts on program effectiveness vs. a program’s ability to raise money.

Evaluating the effectiveness of development programs is a something I find to be quite fraught. In my limited experience, you very quickly wind up doing something like trying to put a dollar value on quality-adjusted life-years, and then find yourself trying to weigh the relative effectiveness of improving someone’s floor or buying them HIV meds. If you get too wrapped up in effectiveness, I also think you wind up in a bit of a moral conundrum: what if you have a program, but then find some other program is more effective? Aren’t you obligated to transfer all your funds into the new program, lest you are wasting limited resources and letting people die? Then again, if you don’t try to evaluate effectiveness of programs, you will do ineffective programs and waste even more of the limited resources and that is even worse! Not an easy business to be in.

There is of course an ongoing movement to just give people money instead of doing almost any other sort of development project. Giving people money is pretty darn effective in a lot of cases, which should be intuitive. Development projects come in and try to identify a needs gap, and then fill that gap. They come in and go “man these people could really use a cow” and then give them a cow. Instead of trying to identify people’s gaps, you could instead just give them the money and let them fill their own gaps. This makes sense. If someone offered me a cow, I would probably take it, and then just go and sell it and spend the money on whatever I actually wanted (just giving money, I want to say, is far from a cure-all, and there are ways to make the impact of direct cash transfers more effective, but still).

On the other hand, the gigantic advantage, I think, of running a give-people-cows charity is that it is much easier to solicit donations. If you go on the website for Heifer International, they give you a whole “gift catalog” of different animals you can buy for families. As yet another caveat, this is actually misleading, when you “buy” a “cow” from them for a family, they actually just use your $500 to fund their programs in general, though some of those include buying cows for people. But let’s pretend they’re exclusively in the business of buying people animals, because that is what their website wants you to think. Heifer International clearly thinks that people are much more willing to cough up donations if they can believe that they are buying a cute widdle baby goat for a specific, photogenic family in a picturesque but nondescript developing country. Contrast that with GiveDirectly, which firmly believes in direct cash transfers. If you go on the website you really gotta kinda poke around before you find any picturesque families!

The thing I was thinking about when I opened up a tab a year ago is the balance between program effectiveness and funding raising effectiveness. To wit, if my program is half as effective as yours, but I can raise twice as much money, aren’t we doing equal good in the world? What I really wanted to do was come up with a donor discount rate, a reasonable quantification of exactly how much less money you raise when you’re like “hey we’re just gonna give cash to people, they need that $20 more than you do” instead of saying “wanna buy a chicken?”

After thinking about it off and on for a year, I realized that was going to be hard. There are too many variables for me, personally, to figure out. Are there people that will only donate money if they can buy a chicken, or if they can’t buy a chicken will they donate to direct cash transfer charities? Are the different chicken charities competing with each other? How do people pick which charities to donate to anyways? Beats me! Plus market forces have probably already revealed the answer: there are more “donate things” charities than “donate cash” charities (I think), so charity world clearly thinks one method is more effective than the other.

Nevertheless, I will do some pointless math on Heifer International and GiveDirectly. According to the abstract from this decade-old study, for every $1 Heifer International spends, they cause somewhere between $1.19, $1.25, or $2.35 of benefit to a household. Let’s average those and say $1.60. Meanwhile in the year ending June 30, 2020, they raised just south of $108 million and spent about $94 million, doing I suppose $150 million “worth” of “good” in the world. On the other hand, according to this only couple-year-old study(‘s abstract, as I understand it), for every $1 GiveDirectly transfers, the community benefits $2.60 worth. Meanwhile, in 2019, they raised about $42 million and gave about $33 million in grants, doing, by my hokey system, $85.8 million “worth” of “good” in the world. So there ya go. Except in writing this post I have learned that in 2020 they raised $300 million and spent at least $210 million, mostly it seems because MacKenzie Scott really likes what they do. I guess that answers that debate.

Jeez I love what MacKenzie Scott has been up to. If you’re hiring, MacKenzie, I will work so hard at giving your money away.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

I know this blog is currently just a tour of the various Smithsonian museums, but hey, they’re great and totally awesome to go to! This past week my super amazing girlfriend’s sister and her sister’s boyfriend (collectively, “A2“) were visiting us. The two of them went to a whole bunch of museums while I was working, but on Saturday I got to go with them to the National Museum of Natural History.

The Natural History Museum is by far the Smithsonian to which I have been the most. I grew up not too far from here and when I was but a wee lad we went all the time on the weekends. Specifically, we went all the time because my brother wanted to go. I always wanted to go to like, any of the other museums, but he whined the loudest so we would always go to the Natural History Museum.

Fortunately the museum as a little something for everyone. A2, for example, was most excited about the dinosaurs. I, too, was actually pretty excited to see this because I hadn’t been to the museum in years and the last time I went they were still remodeling the dinosaur hall, so it was nice to see it finally all together. It actually took me a sec though to register where the dinosaurs actually were because instead of walking into the hall and seeing a big ole’ T-Rex he’s kinda hidden a little bit around the corner and you have to walk in past some boring old mammals to see a fossilized tyrannosaur chomp down on a fossilized stegosaurus. Pretty neat though!

My super amazing girlfriend, on the other hand, was always a big fan of ocean stuff. She is pictured above next to a giant squid (she’s on the right). I have to remind myself while writing this that everyone has not been to the Smithsonian a thousand times, but their ocean hall is pretty darn nice. My favorite part of it is actually a bit off to the side where they have fossils of ancient sea creatures, including really big fish and the like and I just imagine swimming around and then encountering some of these ancient big fish and like, not really liking it at all. The ocean can be a scary place! This is why I read the below sign as a threat:

Historically, as I was being carted around the Natural History Museum looking at the things that other people wanted to look at, I enjoyed the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. They got a lot of pretty rocks in there! The centerpiece is of course the Hope Diamond. When I was younger the curse surrounding it seemed a lot more salient but it is still like, wow. I know that picture is terrible but it was harder to get than you think because it was so brilliant that it even overwhelmed my poor cellphone camera. I was also always a big fan of the opals, because I think they are the prettiest and also because they are my birthstone. Another big factor about liking the gems is that they always seemed the most straight-up sciency, probably because they have this one big holographic crystal wall thingy that it supposed to make you feel like you’re inside a molecule, and when I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist, potentially a mad scientist. I would of course go on to get a whole degree in chemistry where I did a lot of stuff on crystals, which makes opals even cooler because they are amorphous and amorphous solids in materials that are usually crystalline have a lot of cool properties and that is neat.

Anyways these days what I find coolest are the anthropological sorta exhibits and also art galleries. Luckily the Natural History Museum had an African Voices exhibit which was pretty neat! It was very dimly lit which is one of the reasons the below photo of two minkisis isn’t too great (of a Mother and Child figure and a Male, and wow also the Smithsonian’s collection website is terrible), and of course forces itself to survey an entire continent of cultures in one exhibit hall, but this is the sort of stuff I enjoy seeing. It has lots of really great displays and reminders to go check out the Museum of African Art and the Museum of African American History & Culture.

But to wrap up one of the coolest things I saw all day was the below copper plate, which was created by the Mississipian culture about 700 years ago. I had known that the Mississipian culture existed, but I had no idea they had art like that and it was a very exciting thing to discover in a museum I had been to many, many times before. I guess goes to show you that there is always reason to broaden one’s horizons.

We didn’t stay way too long in the museum because the rest of the crowd was already pretty museum’d out after three intense days of museums. We wandered out to the mall and took some photos and then got on the metro for the ride home. Overall a pretty darn good day.

Cat Café 4

This blog has many themes. Love, hope, family, the usual. One of these recurring themes, besides 3D printing, Renaissance Festivals, and African colonialism, is of course visiting cat cafés! This past weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to visit Crumbs & Whiskers and it was a hoot!

We decided to go for several reasons. One is that we live in DC now and I had mentioned Crumbs & Whiskers somewhere between several and many times over the course of our relationship. Another is that we are in the market for a cat and we thought it might be nice to go and look at some. The most important reason is probably that it is a lot of fun. This post is titled Cat Café 4 because I have been to cat cafés four times now, once in Singapore, once in New Haven, and twice at Crumbs & Whiskers, though the last time I went to Crumbs & Whiskers was years ago now and they have since moved so it is like a whole new experience.

Well not really a whole new experience. No matter what the general gist of the thing is the same, though I gotta say over the years Crumbs & Whiskers has really refined their experience. It was good last time I went but it was clear they were getting their feet under them, but this time it was a well-oiled machine. Brought you in, sat you down, gave you the ground rules, had you take off your shoes, and carefully monitored you during your time. That sounds like a cat-based big brother, that last sentence, but no it was great. We mentioned we were in the market for a cat and they tried to find the perfect cat for us among the lot, and gently pushed us towards cats they thought would match our personality (or just carried those cats over to us). They also include a polaroid with admission and the hosts were carefully seeing when a good photo op would be. They took a very cute polaroid of the two of us petting a cat. The below picture is not that polaroid, the below picture is me looking out of my mind while surrounded by cats:

We opted for the 70 minute experience on this trip and so we got over an hour hanging out with cats. There are a lot of different things you can do with cats over 70 minutes, especially when there are like two dozen of them. I was impressed by how used the cats were to being handled, especially while they slept, and seemed little perturbed when they were picked up in a comatose state. The hosts knew each cat’s preferred toy and they were more than willing to train us up on proper cat toy usage (trickier than you think!) to get the maximum play out of each cat. I especially liked how waving a toy around could gradually garner you a larger and larger crowd of cats.

But while 70 minutes is a lot of time it is unfortunately not forever and eventually we had to leave. This was a sad moment but now I have a Crumbs & Whiskers sticker and a Crumbs & Whiskers lapel pin and many many cat photos to remember our time together by. I’m excited for Cat Café 5. Until then, here is a picture from the next day of me on the National Mall along with a DeLorean that was there, which felt kinda silly to look at because like, I’ve lived it. Not the time travel bit, but the unreliable car bit:

Renaissance Festival II

When I concluded my last post on the Renaissance Festival, I ended it with “Until next year!” Then of course we all know what happened and that next year wasn’t until this year. A lot has happened since the last time I went to a Renaissance Festival! Many of those things have been documented on this blog, and so my loyal reader(s) you are already familiar with the fact that I started dating my super amazing girlfriend! My dad came to town just to go to the Renaissance Festival opening weekend (the weekend before this has been posted) and we decided to go along as well, which was extra exciting for me and I assume for her because this is the first time my super amazing girlfriend had ever been to a Renaissance Festival!

The photo at the top was the usual opening ceremony of the Renn Fest where the king comes out and greets everyone and welcomes them into Revel Grove. We, however, had showed up 45 minutes early (this is my fault), so the first thing that greeted us at the Renn Fest was a vaccination site, which I view as a good thing but which I was surprised by. I have no doubt there are people who would use this opportunity to get vaccinated, but how many people is that? I don’t know if they administered any vaccines but I don’t think the line could have been very long at any point in the day.

As we waited out the 45 minutes in front of the gate, I took the opportunity to point out some of the archetypical people that show up to Renaissance Festivals. Since I was actively looking for people to point out (pirates, princesses, people not in costumes, people in scifi outfits, etc) this was the first time I think I really noticed the wide range of people that show up to this event. Lemme tell ya, it really is a wide range. I saw people in Trump shirts and I saw gay ravagers walking around with dudes in flip flops. There is a place for everyone at the Renn Fest because drinking out of goblets while wearing silly outfits knows no boundaries.

Before arriving, I had tried to explain the Renaissance Festival to my super amazing girlfriend. Her major reference for Renn Fests was Gilmore Girls, and my various attempts to explain I don’t think helped at all. She was very familiar with craft fairs, and I mentioned all the shops and crafts, but a Renn Fest isn’t exactly a craft fair. She is also familiar with Shakespeare festivals, and I tried to sell the event by pointing out that they often do Shakespeare. I don’t think, however, that I saw excitement in her eyes until she looked at the Renn Fest website and discovered that they sold mac n’ cheese on a stick.

We eventually got that mac n’ cheese, but first we took what dad dubbed “the grand tour,” which is really just a walk around the perimeter. I think the true nature of the Renaissance Festival became clear when we passed by a game booth where you threw very cute rats into hanging buckets. We both played, I got a rat in a bucket, and like the excellent boyfriend I am I won my super amazing girlfriend a prize which she proudly wore the rest of the day. Also as part of the grand tour she bought a flower crown, and I was immensely pleased when she told me it made her feel pretty!

It was the afternoon before we really settled into to watch any of the entertainment at the Renaissance Festival. One of the highlights was watching the Company of Women present a scene from Henry VI, Part III. This was the Shakespeare that my super amazing girlfriend wanted to see, and it was great. At least I assume it was. After the scene I asked my super amazing girlfriend what had happened but she didn’t know either. We also managed to see a very abridged version of Macbeth which was very good!

Eventually we also came to the food! We in fact got the mac n’ cheese on a stick, and throughout the day we also got key lime pie on a stick, chocolate and peanut butter pie on a stick, a buffalo chicken calzone, fried cheese, jalapeno poppers, and a crab cake sandwich, and I am sure other things but I am already hungry writing down this list. It is truly a spectacular array of foods and I am only sad that we don’t have more stomachs.

I also want to mention here what my super amazing girlfriend dubbed her favorite show of the day, which was the Magical Poodles. The most impressive part of any Renaissance Festival show is how far these performers can stretch having one or two tricks. We saw a trio of jugglers who did a whole series of shows and you know what all they did was juggle. They were great though. Anyways our Poodle Lady friend, she was great. I have never trained poodles, so maybe she was at the top of her craft, but the tricks the dogs did were not very impressive. However, they were extremely cute and she was extremely earnest and it was very clear each dog had its own personality it 100% wanted to display as they wandered around the stage or demanded an additional treat before they would perform a trick. These dogs were divas, they knew it, and were twice as cute for it.

All in all it was an excellent day at the Renaissance Festival and I am super excited I got to show my super amazing girlfriend what it was all about. We ate foods and saw shows and got legitimately lost in a maze for a little bit but that gave us an opportunity to take some photos and just be cute together and it was great. I’ve been going to the thing for decades now and I am impressed that you can really find entertainment for all ages and all types as you wander around. We gotta make sure it isn’t another two years before we can go again.

The Ship of State

Reading this week:

  • Brazzaville Charms by Cassie Knight
  • Pastoral Song by James Rebanks

A matter of weeks ago now I started a job with the US Department of State. Pretty neat! This explains why these posts haven’t been going up at their normally appointed hour. The working life is tough! This is why I avoided it for a little over four years. But a strong desire to have a salary once again has driven me towards the 9-5 life. Oh, capitalism.

At any rate working for the State Department has been pretty interesting so far. Over the course of my grad school experience I spent a large chunk of time thinking about how things actually get done, and the thing that was usually getting done in this thinking was US engagement in Africa. There are a lot of people who are very passionate about international development and international engagement one way or another, and as a former Peace Corps volunteer and a grad student in a Global Affairs program I know a sizeable chunk of them. These people, and remember I am one of them, have a lot of strong opinions about what should happen and their zeal is focused of course on the delta between what they think should happen and what does happen.

I want to caveat that it is far from universal, but I think a lot of the time this delta is attributed to something along the lines of a lack of vision of the people doing the work. They don’t quite share the same passion for involving the people they’re trying to help in their development projects, or they don’t quite understand a cultural nuance on the ground. What I have generally discovered is that the people doing the work got into the work because they in fact hold all the same passions and zeals as my strawmanned critics. Unfortunately, this makes the delta between the should and the is more complicated to explain, but now I am perched in the perfect spot to figure out what that is.

One thing I haven’t quite fully figured out is who actually makes policy happen around here. More caveats! So far, for me, the State Department is very small. I talk to a handful of people at the embassy, and I have one or two counterparts in different bureaus and divisions. Relatively speaking, my sense is that there aren’t a lot of people in the Africa space. I hear in other bureaus multiple people will cover a single country, instead of a single person covering multiple countries, but those other countries are outside my purview so I’m not very sure. The caveat I’m building up to here is that I don’t really know how things work, and in fact I just don’t know a lot of things. I’m pretty new. But there do seem to be a lot of people at the State Department who talk to other people in the State Department, and who monitor things and who write reports and who tell those things to other people, but who actually makes US policy happen in, to, or around a foreign country?

Stunningly, I’m starting to think that person might be me. I’ve sent emails and made phone calls to counterparts in foreign countries and, stunningly, things happen? Nothing earth-shaking yet. I haven’t sent enough emails to get world peace yet, though by golly if my sent folder is anything to go by I am trying. Still, I feel like there must be something more.

One model I have of the State Department is that there is in fact a very small number of people who have the ability to affect anything. The rest of the State Department is therefore geared towards getting a certain concept across their eyeballs as often as possible. If you want to affect policy in so and so country, you try to make a lot of noise about so and so country, so that the people who can affect things read reports and the like about so and so country pretty often. Then, when it comes time for some event, or they have to decide something about policy, since they have thought about so and so country so often that they default to that course of action.

I don’t know if that model is accurate but I’m excited to refine my theories as time goes by. One thing I hope to avoid is losing any zeal I have. One unfortunate part about knowing how the system works is that while you learn why things are the way they are, that might convince you that things are the way they are for a good reason. You gotta keep a keen eye out for where things can change. I don’t know if I’ll pull that off, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

National Museum of Asian Art

I just like this cow. State of Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, 12th century

Today my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art! Look, there is a very good chance that this blog will now become just a series of descriptions of adventures to various Smithsonian museums. The National Museum of Asian Art may very well come up again because the Sackler gallery was closed and so we didn’t go there of course, but the Freer gallery was already so emotionally overwhelming I don’t know if I could have handled a whole extra gallery.

One big advantage of visiting this museum over visiting the National Museum of African Art for me, personally, is that now I got to go with my super amazing girlfriend. In the last blog post I mentioned she had not yet arrived but that is no longer true because we have moved down here and live in the DC area now! Very exciting! So on a weekend when we were otherwise trying to organize our new apartment into something resembling a calm and soothing place to live, we decided to spend the time to go out and do something.

The Freer gallery is a very nice size for an afternoon’s outing. They are particularly proud of their Hokusai collection, as they should be. When we visited it took up a notable proportion of their gallery space, and more is coming because they had one gallery closed for an exhibition of his work they are still putting together. Everyone knows Hokusai, so I know Hokusai, and I was excited to see his stuff. But man. Look I dunno. When I turned and saw the above piece, titled Portrait of a Courtesan Walking and photographed so shittily on my phone that it is a travesty, my heart leapt. I mean, Christ, look at those lines, look at her outfit, look how he has captured her poise. How was I supposed to move on from that? Luckily they also had a cute birb done by him:

After recovering from Hokusai, I was surprised to discover that they also had a collection of works done by Thomas Dewing, and again there is just some stuff I couldn’t believe. Look I shouldn’t be an art critic. Plus it is late at night when I am writing this and I had to wrestle with my insurance company just now. I didn’t know Thomas Dewing before this, and my surprise came from the fact that he was not Asian, so I was a little confused about why I was seeing his works in the National Museum of Asian Art, but I am glad I did. Below is “Study of a Head,” and man just look at it. First off, look how finely her features are rendered. That’s phenomenal in and of itself. Second, it’s done in silverpoint, which lends the work a ghostly quality, like she is just appearing fully formed on the page from some other realm. I think I already said “phenomenal” but I’ll say it again: phenomenal.

We had proceed through the museum counter-clockwise, but I think next time we go through it’ll be clockwise. The China stuff is off to the left when you come in from the mall entrance. My super amazing girlfriend is a China specialist, and so that is her jam, but by the time we came to the China section our emotional fortitude was already sapped by the beauty we had witnessed. But one especially interesting part of the China section is their Neolithic stuff. The museum had a number of jade pieces from the Liangzhu culture, and again wow the stuff was amazing. I mean I suppose Neolithic people are gonna be know for their stone but these peeps took it to another level. The pieces in the below photo are up to 5,000 years old. As I have discussed before I just like being the presence of things shaped by human hands from such an ancient era, but these are gorgeous and translucent and yet again phenomenal to boot!

Emotionally drained, culturally bombarded, and artistically wrecked my super amazing girlfriend and I stumbled out of the museum and onto the national mall where we looked to the symbols of democracy sprinkled about until we regained enough adventurous fervor to get back on the metro. We went off to look for pillows. We didn’t buy any. But how could any pillow even come close to the art we had just witnessed? You should go see it yourself.

National Museum of African Art

“Wind Sculpture VII” by Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2016

We have moved to DC!!!! Well sorta. So my super amazing girlfriend and I have graduated from graduate school and we have both got pretty outstanding jobs in Washington DC. I feel like we have become in many facets a very certain type of person/couple, and I think for now at least we are both pretty okay with that because DC has some excellent museums we are both very excited to go to. We’re in blog time, so by the time you (“you” here being most likely my super amazing girlfriend, so hi! I love you ❤) read this we will both actually physically be in DC, but while I was experiencing these events she was in MA working remotely and I was in DC crashing in my cousin’s basement.

While here in DC I had a weekend free and had recently found out that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art existed and I wanted to go. Besides the museums, one of the reasons that my super amazing girlfriend and I are excited to be in DC is because we have a bunch of friends here. So I rounded up my friend Alison and off we went to the museum. It was pretty great!

“Wedding Souvenirs” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2016

One of the first and most surprising things I learned about the museum is that it bills itself as “the only museum in the United States solely dedicated to the dynamic and diverse arts of Africa.” It is pretty stunning that it is the only one, though maybe in retrospect that isn’t so weird. The Yale University Art Gallery has a section dedicated to African Art, so the Smithsonian clearly isn’t the only place in the US you can see African art, but maybe it is reasonable that it is the only place dedicated to African art.

Since I had been to the Yale University Art Gallery I was actually a bit worried about this museum. I might be talking out of my ass here, but one thing that made me uncomfortable about that gallery is as you walk around the Africa wing it seemed to me that the concentration of art mirrored very closely the harshness and length of colonial rule. Plus, thinking back, I don’t think I remember any particularly contemporary African artists. That experience had me apprehensive about what I would find at this museum.

“Contact” by Nandipha Mntambo, 2010

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, therefore, that the National Museum of African Art has a much wider range of African art on display, ranging from the more ancient to the contemporary, and in many different styles. It was fantastic! The place is also quite large. The ground footprint is not very large, so I thought it wouldn’t take very long to get through the museum, but it just keeps going down farther and farther into the ground so there is a lot more to see there than you would initially suspect. Below you can see the second sub-basement as viewed from the first sub-basement, and it goes down for another sub-basement after that.

Center: “Rainbow Serpent” by Romuald Hazoumè, 2007

All the pictures so far have been some of the more contemporary pieces that I enjoyed. A couple of them I took pictures of before I realized they had nautical themes, which is I suppose why I was attracted to them. At the very top is “Wind Sculpture VII,” which evokes a ship’s sail, according to the plaque. “Contact,” the piece made of cowhide, was inspired by a ship’s figurehead that “comes towards us but is always just beyond reach.” It was cast from the artist’s own body and made of cowhide as a tribute to her cattle-raising Swazi heritage. The most impressive part of the ouroboros right above is, in my opinion, is that it is made of jerry cans, and man that is a lot of jerry cans.

Benin bronzes, Mid-16th to 17th century

Colonialism did manage to rear its head, however. I was a little stunned, probably naively so, that the museum had some of the Benin bronzes on display. The plaque next to them did talk about the museum’s “longstanding collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments,” so maybe there isn’t so much tension there, but still, how haven’t we returned these things? They are, like all the rest of the art on display, beautiful and intricate and detailed, and I am glad I got to see them, but the fact of their presence puts them in a pretty intense conversation with every other exhibit.

Astrolabe constructed by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuh al-Khama’iri, 1236-37

I don’t have anything much to say about the above astrolabe, except maybe wow. That thing is phenomenal. It was in the third sub-level, and so near the very end of the museum experience. I am excited to go back! But having wandered through the whole museum, Alison and I packed up and ascended the stairs to re-emerge into the daylight. She hopped on her bike and head home and I wandered about the courtyard a bit before heading next door to the Castle, which I had passed many times but had never been in. This explains why I was stunned that Jimmy Smithson’s crypt is right inside the front door? This is probably my second-favorite crypt now, after John Paul Jones. Look, my first choice is to live forever, but on the off chance I fail to do that, I would very much like to be interred in an ornate crypt that is trafficked by thousands of visitors. If it is very nearby to an excellent art museum you should very much visit, all the better!