Museum of the American Indian

Reading this week:

  • Missionary to Tanganyika edited by James B. Wolf
  • The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton
  • Mr. Selden’s Map of China by Timothy Brook

A couple of weekends ago my super amazing girlfriend, her mom, and I all went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was not the original plan. Her mom had come into town to see the cherry blossoms, as one is wont to do in DC around this time of year. They initially had gone on Friday and had a lovely time. I was unfortunately working, and thus could not go. Saturday we spent at the zoo and then on Sunday we ventured once again to the National Mall in order to see some extremely pretty flowers.

Unfortunately between Friday and Sunday a wintry blast had hit, dashing all hopes that spring had firmly sprung and making me regret storing all of my sweaters and sweatshirts in the box to which I banish them in the summer with the idle hope I will never need them again. Don’t worry, dear reader, we did get to see cherry blossoms! In fact we saw cherry blossoms from perhaps the best vantage point in all of DC, that is atop the Washington Monument. Having had such a nice time last time, we had managed to snag tickets for Sunday morning so bright and early we found ourselves peering over at Jefferson and enjoying the view:

However, as all things must eventually come to an end, we were eventually ejected back out into the frigid and blustery cold and had to find something to do. Our original plan was to walk around the tidal basin and look at the blossoms, but due to the bluster and cold I just mentioned that plan was right out. So instead we did the logical thing: go to the National Museum of the American Indian.

Mask representing an amikuk.

I have some fond memories of this museum. I remember when it opened and how eager my grandpa was to go to it. He made a lot of art and had a deep interest in native American art, hence his enthusiasm. I also remember the cafeteria they have being very good, and it was good again this time and I thoroughly enjoyed my traditional authentic Navajo taco. However, as a museum overall I remembered it being a bit underwhelming. My sort of biggest criticism is that I remember being disappointed that they didn’t stick more museum in their museum. This is not a particularly objective criticism, and if I was running a museum I would lean heavily in the wunderkammer direction. A gigantic part of the museum is taken up by the open atrium and between that and the other sundry museum bits they really only have four or so exhibit spaces available. I just want more.

However, it was this time around that I figured out the way they give you more is being fairly well dedicated to rotating their exhibits out. I hadn’t even realized that what I thought of as the “intro” exhibit is itself technically temporary (and ending soon!), though an 18-year run is pretty good. The next exhibit was the one that most directly appealed to the interests of my girlfriend and I, which was all about the nation-to-nation relationships between the United States and the American Indian Nations. If you’re, you know, an American with an iota of feeling for one’s fellow man, it’s not a feel-good exhibit as one might guess. My favorite part was learning that the Haudenosaunee still demand to be given cloth by the United States government, despite the government’s attempt to just switch it to cash. According to the exhibit, “The nations replied, ‘The cloth is more significant than money, because so long as you keep sending this to us, there’s a chance you’ll maybe remember all of the other articles of that treaty.”

Of the exhibits, my favorite and most gorgeous displays the work of Preston Singletary, and is titled “Raven and the Box of Daylight.” It was in this exhibit that I had to remind myself to reset my notion of what a museum should be away from my wunderkammer instincts. It displays a series of stunning glass statues but then uses those statues to relate to story of, as you guessed from the title, Raven and the Box of Daylight. I came away convinced more museums should have whole exhibits that literally tell a (metaphorical) story.

The most thought-provoking exhibit however was titled “Americans,” and explores how interwoven Native American iconography, imagery, and culture is with the United States, despite or because of the massive racism and violence they have experienced at the hands of the people of the United States. As pictured above, its central hall contains multitudes of those images, including many I hadn’t quite realized were named after Native Americans (I’m thinking of SueBee Honey, ie Sioux Bee Honey here, not the Tomahawk, which is obvious, except that I took that picture because as soon as I saw the Tomahawk I realized I hadn’t actually ever made the connection). Of the hall they had smaller displays telling not only more accurate versions of the history of people like Pocahontas or events such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, and even more interesting how the perception and use of these histories have changed over time in the United States in response to the changing mores and fashion of the times. Interesting stuff, and its these changing exhibits that are going to make me need to come back to the museum more often.

After a quick trip to the gift shop (of course), which is excellent, that wrapped up our time at the Museum of the American Indian. We ventured back outside to the still-blustery day and headed home. As a final note, since I have mentioned here that I like baskets, they did have some excellent baskets:

Dumbarton Oaks

I forgot to take a context photo once again, so this is thanks to Wikipedia. We never saw this view, having scuttled in from the street entrance.

Reading this week:

  • Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes by David Reynolds

The other day, in our continuing efforts to visit every museum in DC, my super amazing girlfriend and I set out to explore Dumbarton Oaks! Remember when Harry and Meghan turned down “Earl of Dumbarton” for their son? Anyways off we went!

Except we didn’t go there first. My super amazing girlfriend is very sensibly into teahouses, and so our first stop for both tea and lunch was Ching Ching Cha which I recommend you go to because it comes highly recommended by both me and my super amazing girlfriend. They have a wide variety of teas available. I went with a black tea while she went with I think a hibiscus tea. Below you can see a picture of me looking at the tea, appreciating its terroir and stuff before sipping it down. I followed the tea with a delicious egg custard. All in all an A+ experience.

Sated and energized, we went off to Dumbarton Oaks. We had timed tickets and they mean it there. We tried to sneak in about 30 minutes early but a much harried woman was guarding the desk and making sure everyone followed COVID protocols, which I appreciate. I hope she is paid well. After a short jaunt to a flea market we finally got in.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Dumbarton Oaks. I don’t tend to like, read ahead on these things, so I enter wide-eyed and impressionable. The impression I got was that man, it seems like it would have been fun to be a rich person in the early 20th century going around just buying up people’s cultural heritage and not being worried about it at all.

Icon of St. John Chrysostom

I can direct you to the webpage for the History of Dumbarton Oaks, where you can learn that the museum was the result of the collecting efforts of Robert and Mildred Bliss. A fun fact I learned from that webpage is that Robert and Mildred met because their parents married each other; Mildred’s mom married Robert’s dad. Interesting! Robert was a diplomat and it was apparently in Paris that they caught the aforementioned bug of buying up cultural heritage. They wound up specifically interested in Byzantine artifacts and also pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. We couldn’t figure out and I haven’t found why they were interested in those two topics in particular.

I know I have already brought it up twice but what I am trying to get to here is that this place gave me an especially weird feeling of like, wow this is a bunch of other people’s stuff just sitting here in Georgetown for some reason. This is an unfair criticism of this museum in particular because I realize this is in many ways just sort of what museums do, a fact which has not stopped me from going, again as discussed, to as many museums as possible. But something about this one just drove that home. Maybe it was because it is so explicitly a museum designed around two people’s particular and unrelated interests. Or maybe it is because of the two sarcophagi they had next to each other, both of which lacked any particular explanation of what happened to the dead dudes previously using them:

Top: “Sarcophagus with Architectural and Apotropaic Imagery,” Bottom: “Seasons Sarcophagus

I hope those dead guys are okay besides, you know, being dead. I know I am being negative about this museum so far but there was a lot to like. I haven’t particularly ever been into the Byzantines at all so I didn’t really know how to process the artifacts they had on display but there was some really cool stuff. The first artifact pictured, the icon, is a mini-mosaic and is maybe the size of a hand, so all those little tiles it is made of are in fact very tiny. Impressive! They have a huge collection of Byzantine seals, which they use to tell the story of the Byzantine empire in a compelling way, showing how the events going on in the Byzantine world are reflected in the seals used to uh seal official communications. I have also been shitting on the Blisses for buying up people’s cultural heritage, but if you go to the linked pages about the different artifacts they have fairly detailed acquisition histories and they bought I think all of this stuff from dealers and the like, so they are not directly responsible for the pilfering. Except of course for the mosaics on the floors they repurposed from millennia-old archaeological sites via digs they sponsored. Anyways!

Besides their Byzantine artifacts, they also have a huge collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. These are housed in a more modern wing of the complex which is a beautiful architectural complex comprised of circular rooms lined with glass, centered on a fountain and placed within the gorgeous Dumbarton Oaks gardens which we didn’t get to explore on this trip. It’s a peaceful and very different sort of setting and we both liked it a lot. It was against this background that we looked at the artifacts and wondered how they got here.

To make one final complaint, we were left unsatisfied with the way these objects were presented. Part of the reason the Blisses were interested in these objects were because they considered them and wanted others to consider them art pieces, instead of just maybe historical artifacts. I do like appreciating these pieces as art and thinking about the artists and their lives that were so very different from my own, but my super amazing girlfriend and I both wished there was more context or something that we couldn’t put our fingers on to explain these objects. For example, I wanted to know in what context they were found; it would have been edifying to learn if these objects had been found in graves or buried in foundations or just found in the ground somewhere. We appreciated the art of these objects but more explanation of their symbolism or meaning would have been useful too. Of course, considering the provenance of these things maybe they just don’t know.

I don’t have an excellent conclusion here. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is not particularly large, but it has a very interesting array of artifacts, especially if you are into the Byzantine empire. Since these objects are there, I recommend that you go and look at them and appreciate them for what they are. But it was just that something about the whole museum left me feeling unsatisfied about how these objects got here, or maybe how to appreciate them, or maybe something deeper and more fundamental. But also wow this necklace is an astounding display of craftsmanship:

Gold Skull Necklace

Montpelier

Reading this week:

  • To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair by Annie B. Hore

After an extremely good weekend full of poffles and yarn and books and excellent times and of course presidential sites, we rounded out our journey with a trip to James Madison’s Montpelier.

As much of the weekend had been it was cloudy when we arrived and some rain was just thinking of clearing up, but the entrance to Montpelier is meant to impress and does. As you enter the gate you drive through some shallow rolling hills across massive fields of a massive estate. The weather meant it was quiet and we saw deer grazing across the road from a full-sized horse track as we made our way to the visitor’s center. Popping out of the DeLorean in the nearly empty car park, I quipped “busy day” to the only other woman around, who replied with the remarkable comment “you know I only ever met John DeLorean once – and helped his wife over a fence.”

Our guided tour of the house and grounds was once again fantastic. We had one other person join us, and our tour was given by a member of the estate’s board and part of the conservation team, so she was extremely knowledgeable. The estate had been in the hands of several generations of Madisons and she walked us through that history and how it was intertwined with the Virginia tobacco trade, first near the coast and then migrating to the Piedmont. Much like Highland, I think a lot of what was most interesting about Montpelier was the history of the estate itself as an historic site. Again like Highland, it has only been in the past five years or so that they have restored the house to something like Madison would have known and done the archeology to establish the history of all the people who lived there.

Our guide contrasted that to someplace like Mt. Vernon, which has been a historic site catering to visitors since 1853. Since our tour guide was on the board, we got to learn a lot about how they choose which artifacts to put in the building and where they get them, and a lot of what I was thinking about was the historiography. I extracted myself from that line of thinking for long enough, however, to pause in Madison’s study, the room where he did so much research on the nature of freedom and confederations while overlooking his land worked by people he enslaved.

Much like Highland, the story of slavery at Montpelier felt a little tacked on, though with a significantly better budget. They have an award-winning exhibition on slavery at Montpelier, awkwardly tucked into the cellar. The exhibit was brutal and honest and enlightening, but was a thing to do after the tour proper. They have also reconstructed a number of dwellings for enslaved persons and other plantation buildings on the south yard. Here the story of slavery on the plantation continues, and maybe I am an old fogey but I wondered if there was too much attention to the flash instead of substance. But overall it was good and honest.

The most recent owners of the estate were the DuPont family, and a great deal of the modern appearance is due to them. Marion Scott, née DuPont was the last heir to the estate, and loved horses, so the horse track was her doing. She is also responsible for the formal garden on the grounds, which in Madison’s day was a vegetable garden and orchard. The formal garden was nice, but I am much more a sucker for a vegetable garden and orchard. You add a fish pond to the mix and I go absolutely gaga. Much like Highland the estate has extensive, miles-long trails, and apparently a wonderful old-growth forest, but our clothing did not quite match the weather so we didn’t wind up taking advantage of it.

I am sitting here trying to reflect on what I learned about Madison by coming here. I learned a lot about his family history. He was definitely born into privilege and which afforded him the opportunity to go to the University of New Jersey, ie Princeton. Our tour guide compared that, however, to Berkeley in ’69 which is a useful perspective. I still wonder at revolutionaries – many people think they dream big, but how many people dream big enough to start a whole new country? But I think it is easier to dream big when you are already safe and secure. By that measure, a man like Madison, secure for generations nestled in the Virginia foothills and living off the labor of generations enslaved workers, would have been able to dream big indeed.

Second dead president in three days.

Highland

Reading this week:

  • The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa

Second on our tour of presidential sites in the greater Charlottesville area was Highland, the home of James Monroe!

I arrived at Highland in a terrible mood because the DeLorean betrayed me and wouldn’t start, so we had to take an Uber there. But we had the place almost entirely to ourselves and the staff was all extremely friendly (the kind of friendly you get when you are there to talk to tourists and there are nearly no tourists to talk to) and although it was cloudy it was fairly warm and it is a gorgeous area nestled there in the uh highlands of the Virginia piedmont.

Although we were at Highland for James Monroe there is not really a whole lot of James Monroe there. Our most famous presidential doctrinaire bought the place I think because owning a plantation was the hip thing to do if you are an up and coming 18th century Virginian, and he bought this particular plot because his bff Jefferson was next door. There are three buildings at the site that are contemporary to James Monroe, and that does not include his house. The contemporary buildings are two rooms of a guest house he had built (the backside of the white building in the photo at the top) along with an overseer’s house and a smokehouse which I was disappointed to find had its door closed and locked so I couldn’t see if they had fake hams hanging up.

Once you poke around the grounds you can go into the guest house, which is connected to a larger yellow house and contains (I guess I should say houses) a museum to the plantation and James Monroe. It is quaint and I feel like they must feel like they’re in competition with the James Monroe Museum for James Monroe primacy. Nonetheless I learned a few things, like the fact that Monroe is the dude behind Washington in “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” They focus a lot on his foreign policy work and credentials, which is close to both my heart and my super amazing girlfriend’s, so that was interesting to read about. They have a number of James Monroe artifacts and I am certain that for all James Monroeifiles it is a must-visit.

Probably the most interesting thing about the site was sort of the history of the museum. Apparently for a long time they thought that the yellow house in the photo above was Monroe’s. It was only recently they figured out it wasn’t and that the original house had burned down shortly after Monroe died and his heirs had to sell the place to pay off Monroe’s debts. And then it was only about five years ago that they did some archeology and found the foundations of Monroe’s actual house, which are now outlined in the stones in the above photo. Pretty stunning that they’re still only just figuring out what his house actually looked like.

Overall the place had kind of a weird vibe, as in when you go to Washington’s place they’re like “a Great Man lived here” but Monroe’s place feels like the house of someone I could know. That’s not crazy, because most of the buildings on the site were built in the late 1800s, and even in New Haven there were plenty of antebellum buildings in the neighborhood I lived in, and those were occupied by grad students. If Highland has a major advantage over the other two presidential sites we went to, it was probably the sheep, which were very cute.

I praised Monticello for how they addressed slavery, and although Highland didn’t do a bad job it felt a little tacked on. I suspect it is because the place isn’t running on a massive budget and not only lacks the detailed records that Jefferson left behind but even if they had those they probably lack the resources to put up interactive displays or the like. Still, they name names where they can and make sure to not try to excuse or sweep under the rug Monroe’s status as an enslaver.

Overall I think we spent about an hour at Highland. If we had known and prepared better we probably could have taken advantage of the trails on the property, which extend into the woods and I am sure would have been quite beautiful. As it was we spent some time wandering around outside and pondering the balance between expansive foreign policy and being nestled into rolling foothills. Then we called an Uber (talk about labor relationships) and hit up a yarn store.

Monticello

This past weekend, it was my super amazing girlfriend’s birthday, so to celebrate we went down to Charlottesville, VA. It was lovely! We stayed in a quaint little inn and managed to go to if not all then the vast majority of used bookstores and yarn shops in the town and enjoyed every minute of it. But why Charlottesville? I’ll tell you why. My super amazing girlfriend loves presidential sites, and Charlottesville has no shortage of them.

By “no shortage” I specifically mean three. The three presidents are Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison, and the sites are their former homes and plantations of Monticello, Highland, and Montpelier. Over the course of a three-day weekend we went to all three and it was absolutely fantastic. The first one we went to was Monticello on a warm but cloudy December day.

When you arrive at Monticello, you pull up to the Visitor’s Center (a good place for visitors admittedly). Our first destination was the very nice little farm table café they got going on because it was lunch time, but after that I think the general thing to do is probably visit the museum they got there. At Mount Vernon, they like to paint a picture of George Washington as a nerdy farming enthusiast, and in that same way at Monticello they like to portray Thomas Jefferson as a passionate hobbyist architect who maybe also did politics. I gotta say, it is a good thing he was apparently half decent at architecture, though it would probably be funnier if he wasn’t – “this building was designed by Thomas Jefferson. It’s shit, but we gotta keep it because, you know, Jefferson.” So in the museum they have all his European influences as he was designing his house at Monticello and displays of how the dome is constructed and all sorts of drafting tools on display.

This is the house, not the museum, and that’s an automatic letter-copier and not a drafting tool, to be clear.

After poking around the museum we took the bus to the top of the hill for our tour. The tour was really great. Our tour guide was Linda, a short, silver-haired woman wearing a kooky cat pin on a blue pantsuit and round red art deco glasses and who was really passionate about the information she was delivering. It was not busy at Monticello that day (or at any of the sites we would visit) so she had plenty of time to answer all of our questions. I had actually been to Monticello once before a long time ago, and all I really remembered were some nifty gadget doors, Thomas Jefferson’s not-worn-in-yet pair of boots, and his gravestone which didn’t list “president.” All that to say is that I learned a lot!

Jefferson’s map of Africa. The reason only Kingdom of Kongo is really filled in is slavery.

Of the three plantations we visited that weekend, Monticello I think did by far the best at telling the story of slavery at the plantation. At Mount Vernon slavery is presented as this sort of unsavory fact of life that an otherwise immaculate George Washington couldn’t help but be involved in. At the other two sites the way they address slavery felt sort of tacked on. But at Monticello slavery is centered in the story as an undeniable and central part of plantation life that was fully intertwined with the story of Thomas Jefferson. They make sure to present the enslaved people’s names and give them credit where it is due, such as in the display three pictures ago listing the people who built Monticello. To be fair to Highland and Montpelier, Monticello has the huge advantage of Thomas Jefferson’s meticulous records and so they know the stories of all these people where in other places it has been lost.

It’s always men that want to build on top of mountains. Monticello has gorgeous views but it wasn’t Jefferson that had to haul everything to the top of a mountain.

And like I said I learned a lot! For example, I learned how interwoven the stories of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings were. I hadn’t learned before that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, nor had I learned before that Sally had only one African grandparent. After the house tour, we went on the tour about slavery on the plantation, and we learned that Thomas Jefferson “freed” two of his children by Sally Hemmings by just sending them away so they could “pass” for white. One of the most significant facts we learned about Sally Hemings is that she agreed to re-enter slavery after negotiating with Jefferson. He had brought her to France where she was free, because slavery was illegal. She initially refused to return to the United States, and only agreed when Jefferson granted her privileges and pledged to free her children – extraordinary concessions for a 16-year-old girl to extract from one of the more powerful men around.

It wasn’t just Sally Hemings’ story they told. They’ve made sure to try to research every enslaved person’s story the best they could. The things they told were heart-wrenching. I wrote down so I wouldn’t forget how although Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, his wife wasn’t, so that, as Linda told us, he had to watch as his wife was sold away on the auction block placed on the west lawn. I think seared into my brain is Linda’s phrase describing Jefferson’s habit of gifting enslaved persons as part of his daughters’ dowries – “he was very generous with other people’s children.” All this done to people who’s ancestry only differed from Jefferson himself by one Black great-grandparent. The best new perspective I gained I think in my tour of Monticello is from a quote from Andrew Mitchell Davenport, a descendant of Peter Hemings: “Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.”

I don’t have a solid transition from that, but neither does America and it probably isn’t something I should transition away from anyways. After you exit the tour you can explore the grounds. They grounds include a fish pond, which of course I was very fond of. They have the usual displays about carriages and the sheer amount of booze that people who are hosting guests every day wind up going through. In the smoke house they had fake hams hanging up, just like the ones at Mount Vernon, so there must be a place out there from which you can buy fake hams to display in your former-presidential-smoke-house. And as you finish with the grounds, you can stroll back down the mountain, on the way passing the grave of the man who caused all this to be built, but thankfully we all know who deserves the credit for building it.

Library of Congress

This is a picture of Congress, from the library.

As loyal readers are aware I went to Yale for my graduate degree. That was fun! There were many advantages of going to Yale, but one of them, I am willing to say, was access to the Yale Library. The Yale Library has a very large collection. 15 million items it turns out. With so many items, they have an array of pleasingly obscure items, including at least one book on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes, which, again, loyal readers are aware is a particular interest of mine. Frankly you never know what you have until it’s gone, and although the Alexandria Library is very nice, I do not think they have 15 million different items, and I can confirm that they have exactly zero books on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes.

I know I am banging on about the lake steamers here, but I have recently restarted my effort at retyping the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I started to feel bad about having stopped pursuing that because I have been reading more books on southern Africa. But since I am reading about Tanganyika, etc, that has me thinking about lake steamers and the like, so that has me remembering there were several books that I wanted to look at while I was in Zambia which I couldn’t because like, I was in Zambia and very far from a library with a collection of any particular note (though Mbala did, in fact, have a library) (I am now realizing that I don’t think I ever wrote about the Tanganyika Victoria Memorial Institute!). Of the two books apparently in the whole world that discuss African Great Lakes steamers, the Yale Library, for all its vast collection, only has one of them (and as of yet will still mail it to me here in Virginia), but for the other I was lost and distraught. Lost and distraught, that is, until the internet reminded me that the Library of Congress has one and I live near the Library of Congress!

The Library of Congress, according to the pamphlet they hand out, has more than 167 million items, which is a lot more than the Alexandria Library and also more than Yale! So I wanted to go and read the book at the Library of Congress. Due to a misunderstanding of the website, I thought that you currently couldn’t do any reading at the Library of Congress, but I wanted to go anyways. My super amazing girlfriend (pictured above) had already been and would be my tour guide. So last Saturday we got on the metro and went to the famously large library.

It is very nice! I didn’t realize what it would be like. First and foremost, the Library of Congress is a place dedicated to excellent ceilings. I won’t subject you to them all, but I do like the below one with “SCIENCE” displayed in tile. I do like both mosaics and SCIENCE. Plus there is like a weird baby involved in the image and I don’t know what that is about, but presumably it is about SCIENCE. I suppose I should specify here that I am talking about the Thomas Jefferson building because the library has a number of other buildings, too.

When we went, the library had two major displays set up. In one wing, they had a whole display on early interactions with the Americas. This was based on the collection of some dude (it was quite the collection, dude) and had an impressive array of artifacts. I really was not expecting to see Mayan pottery when I walked into the museum that day. One of the most impressive items was the earliest map to denote the Americas as America. I took a picture that was just whatever, but you can find it here. The bit I looked at the most was Southern Africa which was cool and impressive and stuff.

I also really enjoyed seeing the Taino ceremonial wooden stool. That object is just so ephemeral and rare and also looks like a turtle, which is cool. Of course on a serious note it reminds us about the important and advanced cultures that existed in these places before Columbus came over and wiped them out.

On the other side of the library they had on display Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. He had sold it to Congress when their first library burned down, which was potentially a bad move for book longevity because it wouldn’t be the last time the Library of Congress burned down. Fortunately not all his books burned, and so they had a number of the originals. They also had identical copies of some of the books, more modern reprintings of some of his books, and then also some boxes to fill out the ones they couldn’t get. They had the whole thing in a spiral, and this was the first time I have been out and about with my super amazing girlfriend and said something like “we could do the living room like this” and she agreed. So I am looking forward to turning our living room into a spiral, it’s gonna be great.

The final thing to see was the Main Reading Room. Seeing people reading in the Main Reading Room is what eventually led me to discover that you could read in the Main Reading Room on Saturdays, and I hope that is something I can take advantage of soon, because like I said I want to read that book on steamships. Maybe I will read other books there too someday, who knows. A lot of people apparently do genealogy research there. Me though? I just want to look at boats.

Think of all the boat knowledge hidden away here!

Washington Monument

Reading this week:

  • Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Like I mentioned last week, my super amazing girlfriend’s absolute best friend in the whole wide world was visiting last week, so we were out on the town looking at stuff. One of those stuffs was the Washington Monument!

Now, you see, I grew up over near Annapolis, so I had been to DC plenty of times back in the heady days of my youth. I would see commercials on like, Nickelodeon for contests where you could win a trip to DC and I thought that was a bit of a lame prize because we would go there for field trips, you know? (Despite the regularity, sometimes it didn’t go well; I remember one time we got to the Natural History Museum at 0830 only for the teacher to discover only at that moment the Smithsonian Museums don’t open until 10) However, despite the regularity of my visits to DC, one thing I had never done (among many things, actually) was go up to the top of the Washington Monument.

This is not for lack of trying! It’s just mostly due to lack of trying. Back in the ole’ days, you had to line up for tickets. They were first come first serve, which meant you had to be one of the first however many people in the line, which meant you had to get there early. I did try to do this once. It took forever for me to find parking that day, but I got in line, and the line started moving, and when I was finally three people away from the window they had run out of tickets. This was very sad for me, clearly. But mostly I had just never tried.

But since my super amazing girlfriend’s best friend was in town, they did try, and lo and behold, they got four tickets! Super neat! We showed up at our appointed time, went through security, quickly admired a statue of George Washington, got in the elevator, and head to the top!

The first and stupidest thing I learned is that the windows look at lot bigger up close than they do from the bottom. I thought they were very tiny. They are small, but not tiny. See? Stupid. There are actually two floors at the top, the 500′ level and the 490′ level. The 500′ level has the windows and you can look out and admire the city. I put those pictures at the bottom. It is a pretty excellent way to see DC all at once (well in four chunks, one for each direction) and you can spend as much time up there as you want. I was like “I can spot my workplace from here!” and “I can spot my house from here!” and “wow the White House has more trees on its grounds than I thought!” You know, deep things like that. It was pretty neat.

After you are done with the 500′ foot level, you descend some stairs to the 490′ level and there is a very tiny museum thingy. There’s not a whole lot there, but the single most interesting thing for me was the above model, which shows how the monument’s very top is constructed. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but the monument is entirely stone (they claim to be the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world, which is neat!) and I was impressed how they did the masonry to put the top together, as demonstrated in the model above. It is also from the 490′ level that you catch the elevator down. Taking the stairs was not an option, though in the elevator on both the way up and down they have a presentation, and on the way down they pause twice to let you look at some of the carved stones on the inside. So that was cool! Having taken the elevator down, we were discharged (you have to go elsewhere for the gift shop), having gained a whole new perspective on this city I’ve been visiting for my whole life.

The mall, Smithsonian Museums, Capitol, etc.
My house is off to the left, beyond Reagan Airport. The tidal basin looked nice!
I discovered my phone could do wide-angle shots, so that’s neat. Look at all the trees by the White House! The State Department is off to the left. The bit with the trees in the background on the right and center is Maryland!

Planet Word

Reading this week:

  • House of Glass by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

The other week my super amazing girlfriend’s absolute best friend in the whole wide world was visiting us, and so we went to Planet Word! Planet Word was certainly an interesting take on a museum, and it was interesting to see a different way of presenting information to people.

First, despite the name, Planet Word is not a whole planet, but in fact only comprises part of a school building. You turn the corner into a courtyard where you discover a tree-looking thing. Hanging from the tree are a bunch of speakers. They are motion-activated, so as you stand under the speakers you hear different recordings and tracks and I suppose that really gets you into the mood.

Instead of discreet displays like at uh, a traditional museum, Planet Word is comprised of a series of rooms that explore a wide range of different aspects and uses of language. At the top is a picture of a room about jokes and wordplay. In one bit of the room you pose with pictures of different idioms and then other people have to guess what the idiom is all about. What’s in the picture is a station where you and your partner tell jokes to each other. The screens give you different jokes to tell and it is a game where you score a point if you make the other person laugh. As you can see, the jokes are of the utmost quality so it is a very competitive game. What made me laugh every single time is not how funny the jokes were, but I started laughing because every time my super amazing girlfriend told a joke she would be very proud of herself and laugh at it herself, and it was extremely cute, because she is super amazing.

For me though I think the part I had the most fun in was a section on advertising. There were some displays around the edges of the room, but the center of the room was comprised of a spiraling set of screens that taught you about different aspects of advertising copywriting, like wordplay and double entendre. Once you reached the center of the spiral, and had thus achieved master of the advertising artform, it invited you to make an ad of your own around a couple different potential themes.

Haha butt!

I immediately tried to see what bad words it would let you put on an ad copy. I didn’t try way too hard, because I was afraid of getting us kicked out or revealing too much of the world to the little kids running around, but still I found it extremely entertaining. Right above you can see the masterpiece I finally contributed the world of Planet Word. Once your ad goes up it slowly moves along the spiral for all your museum compatriots to see. For you, my loyal readers who might want to go to Planet Word someday, it does have a word filter, but for some words it is more aggressive than others. It wouldn’t let me type “Poop,” for example, but it would let you put in very simple variations, like “Poopv.” It also of course blocked words like “Fuck,” and wasn’t tricked by the same simple variation like “Fuckv.” Art arises from limitations, and since I had also learned something about subtlety or something (I think) from the spiraly course on copywriting, I decided that a simple “BUTT” would suffice to convey my message to the world.

One of the other big sections of Planet Word was a stylized library. This library had a small selection of books, but the neat part was that if you took a book and put it on the table, as my super amazing girlfriend is aptly demonstrating above, it started projecting on it and became all interactive and stuff and that was pretty neat. They even had my childhood favorite book, The Way Things Work, and so that was very nice to see again. Around the room too they had these displays where if you said a quote, it displayed a model scene from that book. They had scenes from The Little Prince and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, among others.

They had a number of different rooms besides those, but I won’t spoil all of them. You know I don’t know if I learned anything in particular from this museum, but it is nice to go to a place that tries a new way of being a museum and a new way of presenting information. It was fun and interactive and a nice way to spend an hour or two. I only wish I had written down some more of the jokes from the game so I could deploy them again later. At parties or something, you know?

GW Textile Museum

My super amazing girlfriend reminded me to take a context photo.

I noticed this place when I went out to lunch with a former boss on the day that we saw Doug Emhoff. It is GW University’s Textile Museum! I am a fan of textiles, my super amazing girlfriend is a super amazing fan of textiles, so when we discovered there was a whole museum dedicated to textiles, we had to go! Unfortunately, it isn’t open on weekends. But fortunately due to my many long years of naval service, this great country of ours gave us a day off to celebrate the day that was 14 days before the first World War ended. So we went to the textile museum!

The textile museum was really good! I knew it was going to be good when we walked in and the guard explained to us that they “have a lot of textiles.” He then immediately recommended that we descend into the basement to let our textile journey begin. Down in the basement is I think their special exhibits space, and they had going a display where contemporary textile artists were taking inspiration from some older textiles to design new clothes and the like. It was pretty neat! Even neater though was the section in the basement they had that showed you how various textiles were made. They had a good chunk of hands-on things in this part of the museum. I liked the exhibit in the photo above, where you could touch both the raw materials that textiles were made of and then the finished fibers on the bottom. Pretty neat to see how various bits of trees, animals, or cocoons get turned into the comfy shirts we all know and love.

They also had a cabinet full of various textile samples, as is being demonstrated by my super amazing girlfriend in the photo above. That was neat to be able to put hands on all the stuff! So all in all a very cool part of the museum that at first glance I thought was going to be mostly for kids.

With the basement exhausted, we got in the elevator to skip over the ground floor and go up to the second floor, where the majority of the textile collection begins in earnest. It is quite the range of textiles from all over the world and from a huge wide range of time periods. If you wanna look at some textiles, do you have the right place for sure.

The two above textile examples are both from the Kuba people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and both from the mid or early 20th century. On the left is a Tcaka, which as the parenthetical on the plaque noted is a ceremonial dance skirt. On the right is a “royal belt or girdle.” Hard to tell from my tiny picture but it features shells from both the Atlantic and Indian oceans, meant to display the breadth of the chief’s control. So that is pretty neat, and a good example of how the museum certainly doesn’t take a narrow view of what a textile is.

Speaking of which I was pretty stunned to get up close to the piece right in the photo above, which at first I thought was contemporary art but turns out to be a 500 year old Incan khipu! I didn’t think I was going to see one of those up close anytime soon, and here they have it right on the wall. It is well documented on this blog that I like old stuff, and this museum had a lot of old stuff, with textiles thousands of years old. Besides the khipu, they had a notable collection on display of Incan and Inca-era textiles, and it was just stunning how fine those textiles were. If you want to see some old fabric from just about everywhere, this is the place to go.

Side by side with the ancient textiles they also had a huge range of contemporary textiles and textile art. It really let you see how this cultural technology spans the whole era of human civilization. I took an absolutely terrible picture of it, but my favorite art piece in the place I think was “Attitude” by Lia Cook, which you can see on the museum website here and her website here. It is a lot cooler to see in person because due to both the way she creates the image on the fabric, and the texture of the fabric itself, it has a very cool 3D effect that is fantastic to see when you can navigate your head around the piece.

One piece I did get an okay photo of is the below one, which is “Waterscape VI” by Shihoko Fukumoto, and is apparently “indigo dyed, hand woven linen and paper plain weave.” Like the Lia Cook piece, due to the texture of the textiles I think you really gotta see all these pieces in person to get the sense of how they are constructed, especially in the below example to get a sense of lighly the “waterfall” threads are woven in there to give a sense of how water flows in real life. It’s really great!

After getting our fill of textiles, we swung by the museum shop where you can buy, uh, textiles. And also some books on textiles. It is a very nice little shop! We didn’t get anything, but only because we have enough throw pillow covers for now I think. It is not a huge museum but it does have a fantastic collection of textiles defined very broadly, and the range of objects and the way they display them all together really makes you think about much of a throughline this technology has been to people everywhere. Check it out if you can!

Ford’s Theater

Speaking of assassinations, the other week my super amazing girlfriend and her super amazing mother and I went to Ford’s Theater. It was a fairly interesting place!

My super amazing girlfriend had gotten us timed tickets for 11:30, so after a leisurely morning we showed up, picked up our audio guide, and entered the theater. Unbeknownst to us (probably just me?) the place has a whole museum in the basement. I thought it was just going to be the theater. But you enter through the ticket line and then head down some stairs and there is a whole floor of exhibits about Lincoln’s presidency. I thought it did a pretty good job of detailing stuff, not that I know a whole lot more than the average bear about Lincoln’s presidency. There were a fair number of amusing anecdotes and the biggest takeaway for me is that I want to pick up a biography of Grant at some point.

The museum had a number of interesting things. The photo at the top is a statue of Lincoln they had, and I guess I didn’t get the memos about leaving pennies. I think this is so Lincoln can gaze upon his severed head? Not sure. At the very start of the museum, which starts (chronologically) with Lincoln entering DC for his inauguration, they had a set of brass knuckles, a knife, and some goggles that were offered to him for his protection:

He turned them down but he should have accepted them. Everybody already agrees Lincoln is a badass with an axe, so why not brass knuckles too? Real missed opportunity there. On a more solemn note, they also of course have the pistol that Booth used to kill Lincoln:

Ford’s Theater is still (or actually once again) a working theater, and apparently there was a play that day, so the museum was closing early. This hustled us through the rest of the museum and upstairs to the theater itself, where a very upbeat National Park ranger was answering the same questions I am sure they get 1000 times a day. You can go over and see the box where Booth shot Lincoln, which has the furniture from that night. You can also look up at the box from below, to get the same perspective everyone else had:

And uh, yeah. Then we went to the gift shop, which did have a lapel pin. This is a very short post and I am sorry, I don’t have a lot to say about Lincoln because man a lot has been said about him. Ford’s Theater is a very good museum and lets you see the spot where an act was carried out which killed a very mortal man but which had such a monumental effect on American history it starts to make you reconsider the Great Man theory. Then you can wander over to see the Chinese restaurant where they conspired to enact such a despicable deed.