Recently completed the grand tour of Washington DC. Took the parents and took in museums, monuments, restaurants and anything else we could find. The problem? The museums were a bust as far as good ones. Yeah, I know. I almost had to read that twice myself. The great Smithsonians were like a picked over Blue-Light Special clearance section.
What the hell happened to them? I was there twenty some years ago and loved them. There was so much to see, I could barely stand still long enough to take in the exhibit in front of me. This time around, it looked like some marketing specialist for modern art was in charge during the renovation. Two of the museums in the mall area were still under renovation and completely closed. That in and of itself was a bummer. Why weren’t some of the exhibits from those museums moved to other buildings? There appeared to be PLENTY of empty space in the buildings we visited.
Just one example: In the Native American building, the first two floors were dedicated to empty hallway space, a restaurant and two very small museum shops–the only exhibit was a canoe that appeared to be a “replica” rather than a real one on the first floor. The hallways were wide and empty enough to race bicycles.
There were a lot of contemporary bowls and contemporary native clothing–essentially native garments done by today’s artists. They were gorgeous mind you, but I really didn’t go to a museum to see a modern artist’s rendition of an outfit that was originally designed back in the 1800’s. Several were sewn in 2000 and after, sitting next to the odd one here or there that were made in the 1800 and early 1900s. All of them were beautiful, but you had to check the dates to even know whether you were looking at something done by modern hands, or something done back on the plains using hand-prepared hides, bones, and seeds. There was little documentation to explain what ceremony the outfits might have been used for.
There was very little pottery and if there were old ones recovered from archaeological sites, I didn’t see them, mainly because once I figured out we weren’t talking history, I moved past them. There may have been older pottery bowls mixed in, but there was only a single, short wall of pottery period.
Drawers along one wall contained arrowheads and some steel tomahawk type weapons. Not much by way of documentation to be able to tell who used the weapons, although there were dates.
There were no teepees or utensils such as bone needles, scrapers for the hides, stones for grinding corn. In fact, there was very little information about the different tribes–none of the various artworks such as blankets (Navajo), baskets, pottery or dolls (Kachina or otherwise). I think I saw a few pieces of Indian jewelry, but not much (Not a single piece of Zuni jewelry, for example.) From what I recall, each tribe had their own styles when it came to pottery and painting of pots. Too bad the Smithsonians hid all that in the back somewhere. I certainly would have liked to see some of it.
The Indians didn’t all live the same. They had various ways of life–hunting, planting, pueblos, war-mongering, etc. None of that was mentioned anywhere. The different arts and ceremonies from the different tribes was completely missing. What a letdown.
We also visited the Smithsonian Castle, a museum that supposedly had exhibits/examples from each of the other museums. It was very nice and the samples were great–All two rooms on one floor that was was shared with an eating area and a small restaurant/snack place. We thought we’d be able to see some things from the museums that were closed. And we did. Probably two or three exhibits. What a letdown.
I don’t understand what changed or why. The Smithsonians are supposed to be premier museums in the world, certainly in the United States. There may be more lighting and “interactive” displays, but the content was sadly, sadly lacking. I’d rather have clutter to explore and wonder about than artfully arranged glass cases with one sample of one theme.
I’ll blabber some more about the trip and post some photos in future posts. We did enjoy the Natural History Museum–it contained at least 3 floors of exhibits. My husband visited the Space museum and found some good things there, although there were probably a few too many “replicas” rather than the real thing. Its main purpose appeared to be dedicated to entertaining small children.
We also enjoyed the monuments. There truly is something wonderful about reading the inscriptions at the Lincoln memorial in the hushed environment. People were very respectful and polite.