The following day, we headed back to the Smithsonian to check out the National Archives and the Hirshhorn Museum. We got to the Archives by 10am when it opened so we had minimal time in line. Once inside, we wandered into an exhibition about freedom in America. It was quite neat. The exhibit tracked the changing notion of freedom over the country’s history from letters with respect to slavery, amazing archival footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches, grainy footage of major Feminist gatherings in the 1970s to a copy of the signed text for American Accessibility for Disabled Americas Act. Really neat.
Then we wandered into the Rotunda to check out the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights. I hadn’t been there in years so I had forgotten how churchlike the atmosphere. Above us was a massive dome with murals of the presidents. There were several panels of explanatory texts and then crowds around the documents themselves. Unfortunately, it was hard to read anything on any of the documents aside from the large headings. But it’s still cool to see we have these texts around. I won’t lie that I kept thinking about the silly movie National Treasure in my head during this visit.
There was a special exhibition Alcohol in America, which was also super neat. It had graphs talking about how much liquor and types of liquor that Americans have drunk over our history. We really liked our hard liquor. There were documents related to the Whiskey Rebellion, Temperance posters and pamphlets, to Whiskey prescriptions during the Prohibition. I learned that despite Prohibition, people were still submitting patents for devices related to alcohol like cocktail shakers etc. That was pretty neat. We also found an amazing precursor to the Breathalyzer test known as the “Drunkometer.” I think I prefer that name over the current one. We also meandered through the main exhibition space of the Archives that is quite broad. I saw a letter written by George Washington, but couldn’t decipher a word! They even had archival footage of Theodore Roosevelt and the recording of his voice! There was a gallery about patents where you can guess the patent based on the design.
Then we made our way to another world in the Hirshhorn Museum. I had never been to the museum before and was intrigued after we stumbled upon its sculpture garden outside. There was a healthy mix of Rodins, other sculptures that reference Rodin, Henry Moores, and more. There’s a lovely reflective pond with two odalisques at either end in completely different styles. The Hirshhorn Museum appears to be dedicated to Contemporary Art, with a focus on sculpture. The permanent collection was okay. There was an interesting piece “The Age of Enlightenment–Antoine Lavoisier” by Yinka Shonibare that shows Antoine Lavoisier writing at a writing desk. His period clothing was made from African textiles. It’s a consideration of how the Enlightenment has been regarded as this rational time that progress leaped forward despite the fact that colonialism was also crushing the indigenous peoples throughout the world.
There was another interesting sculpture that took an entire room called “The Dangerous Logic of Wooing” by Ernesto Neto. Fabric blobs were filled with pellets and rice hung from the ceiling to create these strangely white amorphous forms. You could wandered underneath it. Very interesting. I’ll admit that there was a lot more sculptures that I wasn’t terribly fond of.
But then there was the special exhibition of Shirin Neshat called “Facing History” that floored me. Her work largely dealt with gender, equity, and more in Modern Iran. The exhibition featured both her photography and her films. Her photography was astonishing. She’d had these amazingly expressive photos of people’s faces, mainly women, or hands and feet. On top of these photos, she’d superimpose Arabic writings of poems, prayers and other texts. Absolutely astonishing visually. Her films also dealt with politics and gender in Iran. We didn’t have a lot of time to watch the films so we only caught snippets of them. One piece in particular stood out. I think I had seen it before at the MCA, possibly last year with the exhibition of artists influenced by Frida Kahlo. In response to prohibitions of women singing in public in Iran, she created Turbulent. Two video screens face each other. One shows a man passionately singing in front of a theater filled with men while another screen shows a completely veiled woman, you can’t even see her eyes, shifting silently in the middle of an empty theater. It’s supposed to be a contest of who sings better. I didn’t stay for the whole 12 minute piece but I’d be surprised that the woman would make any noise. The difference between the two screens is quite discomforting and highlights these powerful but seemingly arbitrary prohibitions in daily society. Here is the link to the exhibition website: http://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/visit/#collection=shirin-neshat
Then it was time to head to the National Zoo. It is a few stops past the downtown area and a bit of walk from the metro station uphill. But like the Lincoln Park Zoo, it’s free. We made a beeline for the pandas since I wasn’t sure I had actually seen one in person before. We saw both of the adult pandas happily gorging on something that looked like a giant juicy tamale or burrito. They were really incredible creatures. We also saw the youngster, 15 months old, inside. We only saw him for a bit but it was really neat. The zoo is on top of a hill so we made our way down it.
We paid homage to the elephants, now my favorite animal based our experiences in Namibia. These elephants were so much smaller than the ones I saw in the wild! I think they were Asian elephants, which I think tend to be smaller. Still powerful creatures.
We also wandered into the Small Mammal House, which was amazing. We saw a Fennec Fox with large ears who was nibbling on a dead mouse. Then he or she would try to bury it. Then it would unbury it and chew on it some more. So cute! There were porcupines, golden tamarinds, meerkats, even squirrels. One interesting feature of the Small Mammal house was that it seemed to have lots of habitats with the same species of animals. I swear there were three different habitats for squirrels in there. It’s not something I’d seen before.
On our way out, we managed to see some bison and learned the different between bison and buffalo. Bison are really here in the US; Buffalo are in Africa, i.e. Water buffalo. We also got to see some cheetahs (!) who were lying around in the hot sun. And there were some reddish colored wolves that were simply magnificent. Once we got past the luggage issue and the thunderstorm, it was a pretty good trip to DC.
That’s all for now!