International Spy Museum

I keep forgetting to take good context photos. Thanks, Wikimedia!

Reading this week:

  • Before the Birth of the Moon by V.Y. Mudimbe

Recently my super amazing girlfriend and I, along with that mysterious other friend I mentioned last week, went to the International Spy Museum. My initial impression was that it was fine, but the more I think about it, man that is a weird place.

This was my first time going, but I remember when it first opened and all the hype. Lines around the block and all that. When we went there were not lines around the block, but that was mostly due to timed tickets what with this era of COVID and all. The museum is split into two major parts over two floors, and when you go in they put you in an elevator to take you to the top so you can work your way down. Out of the elevator you mill about in this waiting room area and get a badge that lets you log onto computers and take part in a mission. You’re supposed to memorize a code name and some facts about your cover identity and stuff. You are shown a short video outlining like, the world of spying and then you are ejected out into the museum.

The first floor is all about the tools of the trade and tradecraft. There is a bit of history of famous spies throughout history, and then a number of displays full of spy gadgets. Most of the museum is from a single collection, and it is indeed an impressive collection of spy stuff. A lot of the stuff on display is from the mid-20th century, but the museum stays pretty current. They cover things like the 2016 DNC hack and other cyberattacks, and they also have a fairly large chunk of information on female spies which I think is supposed to be #empowering.

But man look the weird part is, who is this museum for? My initial impression is that it was kinda geared towards kids. They have that spy mission thing I mentioned which I think I would have found astonishingly cool when I was 12 (it was still alright, we all tried to do all of it). The artifacts are all behind glass of course, but on some of the displays they have like, tactile versions you can touch, which includes this one:

So um, yeah kids, know you can really know how big the thing you put up your butt is. Very family-friendly. Maybe this is becoming too much of a theme on this blog, but one thing I don’t really recall the museum doing is trying to grapple at all with the moral aspects of this whole spy game. By definition pretty much everything the museum is detailing is extra-legal, and they don’t super try to ask questions about whether it is all worth it, or who the targets of this spying is and why. My super amazing girlfriend and I watched a group of kids huddled around a very neat display detailing how they assessed Osama bin Laden was in his compound. And people fret kids might learn about slavery.

As you descend from the tradecraft floor, you come to what I think was termed the “kinetic action” floor, aka all about killing people. The above photo is of a underwater canoe thingy so SCUBA-equipped assassins can get places. I was thoroughly impressed by the range of artifacts they had the museum, including even the actual ice axe used to kill Trotsky. Which… wow? These people are bidding on different ebay auctions than I am. I sort of tried to imagine bringing a kid around this place, you know, show them some cool history and murder weapons and really introduce them to the murky world of international extrajudicial assassination. Normal, good parent stuff.

Anyways after all that you descend another set of stairs and then you wind up in the gift shop. They have a really good selection of books, actually, but I was very disappointed to discover that they didn’t have any lapel pins. I really wanted a souvenir of my morally hazardous adventure.

Arlington National Cemetery

Reading this week:

  • Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns

I am at least a week late in posting this and several weeks late in writing it, but during October my super amazing girlfriend and I, along with another friend of ours, visited Arlington National Cemetery. I think of Arlington Cemetery as an old haunt of mine because my grandpa is buried there along with an uncle and aunt of mine. On top of that, I went sailing with Ted Kennedy one time, and since he is buried there too I have plenty of reasons to visit.

For those not in the know, Arlington Cemetery is located on the site of Robert E. Lee’s estate. It’s more accurately the estate of his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, but it became a cemetery when Union Soldiers buried their war dead in her garden as a sort of revenge against Confederate General Lee. The house was built by Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, and I gotta say that man certainly understood the importance of location, location, location. The picture above of course doesn’t do it justice, but his front porch is almost certainly the absolute best place to look over Washington, DC, in its grandeur and depravity.

In all my visits to the cemetery, this was the first time that I actually toured the house. It’s fine. I mean it’s a very nice house, but it isn’t my first plantation house. We somehow wound up between guides, but from what I overheard from the group ahead of us the tour guides were very good at centering the story of enslaved persons in the house and highlighting their identity and personhood. I also hadn’t realized before that next door, but down a little path and through a garden, is a whole (but very tiny) museum on Robert E. Lee.

The point of this blog post is my huge disappointment with how they presented Robert E. Lee at Arlington National Cemetery. They swung for nuance but whiffed by trying to teach the controversy. I have some sympathy here, because it is hard to have a museum about a guy and not try to make him sound okay. But they can and should do better.

The central moral dilemma in the story of Robert E. Lee is his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army to go fight for the south. He had to decide, and the museum details this at length, whether to remain loyal to his country or to his state. This was undeniably a real moral dilemma for our man Lee, as evidenced by his letters on it. Since this museum is in the context of Arlington Cemetery, they highlight the personal cost of the decision, which was that (among other things) his family would have to abandon the estate as the Union could obviously not leave it in Confederate hands. Nevertheless, he decided his loyalty to the state of Virginia was more important than his loyalty to the United States.

As I tried to lay out in my post on Mt. Vernon, it is important to understand the decisions people made in the context that they made them. For this reason it is necessary to highlight that during this time period, loyalty to one’s state had much more salience than it does today. Hence, the difficulty of Lee’s decision. This is the story the museum tells and the story people who want to use Lee’s legacy for their own benefit want you to know. But as we know today, and as was in fact clear to the men of Lee’s time, the choice to remain loyal to Virginia or to remain loyal to the United States were not moral equivalents.

Lee’s decision to betray his country and join the Confederacy was a choice to lead men into battle and to their deaths, and risk his own life, in order to uphold the institution of slavery. The Confederacy tried to will into being by use of force a country founded on the principle that people are not created equal, that it is the natural order of things that certain people can be bought and sold because the color of their skin means they have no value as people. The moral decision that Lee made was not whether to remain loyal to his state or to his country, and by presenting it that way the museum makes it seem plausible instead of obscene. The moral decision that Robert E. Lee made, after much thought and consideration, was that some people had no inherent right to life or freedom. By presenting it any other way, the museum does at least some work in continuing to deny the personhood of Black people.

That is the central wrong the museum does, but there are other offenses. As we should all be aware by this point, there has been more than a century of work to repair Lee’s reputation. The museum makes hay of Lee’s apparent efforts towards reconciliation. Should Lee get credit for trying to bring the country together when it was his purported military prowess that did the most to tear it apart? Should you trust a glowing quote about Lee from 1925, during the tail end of the (first) height of the Lost Cause narrative? [1] Inside the house, they have a sign detailing that President Ford pardoned Lee in 1975. Without commentary, they quote President Ford as saying “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”

What are we taking pride in here? The character of a man who thought there were principles more important than the concept that every person is created equal and has the right to life and liberty? Fuck right off.

[1] Actually, from what I can tell Louis Cramton was a pretty great guy. However, the context of that quote is that they were trying to fend off a museum that more fully glorified both Lee and the Confederacy, and the compromise they made was to only glorify Lee a little. Tell you what guys, this is how they always get you: they get you to admit someone had some nice moments, and use that to gloss over the fact he fought to maintain the right to enslave other human beings.

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!