Day 20 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to DC Museums

This isn’t the first time that I have been to Washington, DC. I came here about 2 ½ years ago, as part of a business school competition. The reason I decided to come back, and spend some time here, is because I saw how much there was to see and do.

When I was here before, I simply did not have enough time. For instance, I literally spent only 15 minutes in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Walked in, saw the dinosaurs, and walked back out.

DC is a great place to visit and spend time in, if you like museums. It has a little collection of museums you may have heard of, called the Smithsonian. It also has several museums with “National” in front of the title, as in, this is the nation’s museum for such and such topic.

The most surprising thing I learned about DC, though, and one of its biggest appeals, is that everything is free. The world-famous museums, art galleries—all free. And if free art galleries are not cheap enough for you, there is even a Freer Gallery.

Yes, you can groan now.

So, here is a guide to the main museums of Washington. This is drawn from both the time spent in DC on this trip, and my visit a couple of years ago.


Like the museums themselves, parking is free. That is, it is free if you know where and when to park.

The museums listed here are all in the area of the Mall, which is the long grassy area between the capital building and the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument at its center. You can park along the Mall, right outside the museums, for free, but only after 10:00 a.m. The museums do not open until 10:00 a.m., anyway.

If you get there earlier, or if the Mall parking is full, you can also park closer to the river. There is a small parking lot along the tidal pool, near the Holocaust Museum, where you can park starting at 9:00 a.m. or 9:30. Part of it is free parking, and part of it is permit parking, though, so you have to watch the signs.

You can also park farther away, on the aforementioned Ohio Drive in either the West or EastPotomac Parks. You’ll be doing some walking to get to the museums from there.

Here’s the catch in all of this: the parking is free for 3 hours. After 3 hours, you will either be ticketed, or have to move and park somewhere else. An inconvenience, but at least it is free to get back into the museums after moving the car.

You could pay to park somewhere else in the city, and pay for a cab or public transportation, but we are focusing on the “free” here.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

This one I consider a must-see, for anyone who can handle it.

It is a must-see partly because it is an excellent museum. You walk in, they load you into the gas chambers, you smell the faint scent of burning corpses—and that is just the elevator.

But it is moreso a must-see because I think it is an important subject to learn about and remember. The museum does a great job of walking you through the chronology of events, starting long before World War II. It explains what happened and why, showing all of the factors that contributed to and somehow managed to produce this huge monstrosity of human history.

In terms of who the museum would be appropriate for, if you would not let a child watch the movie “Schindler’s List”, then you would not want them to see this museum. It should almost be required for everyone who is mature enough to see it, though.

One important note: unlike all the other museums mentioned here, the Holocaust Museum is not one that you can wander in and out of, and skip from one exhibit to another. It is set up in a linear format, so that you literally start on the top floor and follow a path around and down through the building. This means you will want to allow enough time to see it all at once, and the three hours’ worth of free parking is likely not going to be enough time.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

It is a bunch of airplanes and space capsules.

I do not want to disparage it too much, but there are definitely larger flight museums you can go to. I had built the Smithsonian up in my head as some sort of huge deal, and I was a tiny bit underwhelmed.

But, it is still worth visiting. I mean, how many places can boast that they have Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis hanging from the ceiling? (Hint: there’s only one Spirit of St. Louis.)

Plus, when I visited, there was a man flying acrobatic kites. Indoors, with no wind. And that’s always cool.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Currently, this museum is closed.

If it were open, you could see some cool machines, including some old farm equipment and the original John Deere plow.

But, it is closed.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Primarily, this museum is filled with rocks and bones.

But, when the Hope diamond is one of the rocks and the bones include dinosaur and whaleskeletons, you have a pretty interesting collection.

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of dinosaurs. It is just one of those childhood things. My favorite dinosaur was the brontosaurus, though I have no idea why. Somehow, you just develop favorites as a child. For me, those favorites included the brontosaurus, German Shepherds, submarines, and miniature trains.

So, I always wanted to see a dinosaur museum. We never made it to one, though, until I visited the Smithsonian a couple of years ago.

It was nice to finally see them, but it was not a very big deal. I no longer cared anything about dinosaurs. I was simply 15 years too late.

I returned to the museum on this trip, and came prepared with a camera and extra rolls of film. As I snapped pictures, though, I recognized the one thing I had not brought with me, that is the single most important thing for visiting and enjoying the Natural History museum: children.

Children—the me of 15 or 20 years ago—get a huge kick out of seeing all of the dinosaurs and sea cows and 5,000 carat gemstones. As I watched them run around with a “What’s this? What’s this?” excitement, I wondered why our educational system even bothers with classrooms at the grade school level. A kid could learn everything they needed to know about science, up to a junior-high level, with a 2-day guided tour of the Natural History museum. And they would enjoy every minute of it.

Sadly enough, I did not have any kids to bring with me. And since the law seems to frown on stealing other people’s children, I moved on to something more fitting for adults than for children: the National Gallery of Art.

National Gallery of Art – West Building

The National Gallery of Art is large enough that it is split into two buildings—an east and a west—with a sculpture garden thrown in somewhere nearby.

The larger West Building is where they house the art that I suppose would be considered “classical”, or at least not modern. Though it may be the U.S. National Gallery, most of the space is devoted to sections on Italian, French, British, and other European art.

I’m not saying that is wrong; I just happen to be a bigger fan of some of the American artists.

The Gallery is probably a place that you enjoy more the more you know about art. I know just a little bit about art, so I can enjoy much of it, but I probably blow through it 10 times as fast as, say, an art teacher.

My favorite pieces have always been the landscapes: paintings like the huge, highly-detailed Bierstadts or Morans. Pictures highlighting the beauty of the American countryside. Then I realized that I was traveling the country to see exactly that, and my love of landscape paintings suddenly made sense.

One of the big things I have come to understand about life is that everything does tend to make sense in the end. The problem is that it usually does wait until the end to make sense.

As I wandered through the American paintings, I came across four by Thomas Cole that were accompanied by explanations written by the artist. It was a series of paintings depicting the four stages of life. Life was imagined as a boat traveling down a stream toward the ocean. The first painting I came to was last in the series, and showed an old man in a weathered boat who had reached the ocean, and was being called heavenward by angels. I moved on to the first in the series, which showed a happy baby in a new boat traveling down a spring-fed stream, with flowers and fruit trees growing along the shore. The next painting showed a young man, perhaps in his early teens, on a wide river. He had one hand on the rudder of his boat as he expectantly reached out his other hand toward the appealing future, represented by clouds in the shape of a castle.

The last painting I came to gave me pause. It was the one depicting manhood, and instead of green shores and a quiet river, it was a picture of a raging, category 5 rapid. The rudder was gone, and the grown passenger helplessly looked up toward the sky, which was filled with storm clouds that took the shape of demons.

What?! The other three paintings seemed rather positive and optimistic to me, but the one describing adulthood had the man rushing out of control toward deadly rocks and rapids, while demons flew overhead. That sucks. And this is supposed to be adulthood, the stage of life I am on the front end of? Who would ever want a part of that?

The Young Adults pastor at my church in Dallas has started referring to life, and specifically a life of following Christ, as a rushing trip down a set of rapids. He considered this allegory to be a positive one, emphasizing that the Christian life is an adventure, and that God will carry us places more exciting than we would ever imagine on our own. I prefer his view, simply because, as an optimist, I must. If Cole is correct, who would ever choose to grow up?

National Gallery of Art – East Building

The East Building houses the modern art, also known as merde.

Pardon my French.

I will readily admit that I am not an unbiased critic here. Ridiculing modern art is one of my hobbies. I also will again emphasize that I do am very far from being an art expert. Because of this, I have a fairly simple system for evaluating art, composed of just two elements. I consider art to be “good” if it:

  1. Is beautiful, pretty, attractive, interesting, or however else you want to say “looks good”; and
  2. Is something that took a fair amount of skill, talent, creativity, or work to create.

Since I really don’t have any artistic skill when it comes to painting, drawing, or sculpting, my general rule of thumb is that if I could re-create a piece of art myself, in a fairly good likeness, then it did not take any real skill to create.

Most all of the classical art passes this test. The more photo-realistic a painting, the smaller a chance that I could do it myself, which is why I hold in high esteem those painters who can make something that looks like a photograph, even from a fairly close distance.

When you get to the East Building, things start looking less like a photograph and more like a 3-year-old’s scribblings.

A good example of the questionable nature of these pieces of “art” is the 5-foot-tall cube that is featured prominently in the East Building. It is a rust-colored steel cube. That is all. Not a cube with the Mona Lisa painted on the side. Not a cube made up to look like something else, or a small part of a larger sculpture. It is just a cube.

I can imagine rare instances in which a cube could fit my definition of “art” above. If it were made out of something interesting, like crystal or toothpicks, it would at least be beautiful or interesting to look at. If it were 300 feet tall, or one millimeter tall but covered with the entire text of Hamlet, it would certainly be difficult to make. However, it is none of that. It is a dirty steel cube, and not only could I reproduce it fairly exactly if I really wanted to, I could hire a vo-tech welder to do it for me with no problem.

It is a cube, it is only a cube, and it has no more artistic value than any other cube.

Now, I can hear the common refrain that beauty, and therefore art, is in the eye of the beholder. I’ll even grant you that point. But, who out there looks at a cube like this and thinks, “wow, that is incredibly beautiful art!” Did anyone raise their hands? If so, are you struck speechless by the beauty of a cardboard box, or stare for hours in stunned amazement at a bowl of sugar cubes? Because they all have about the same artistic value as this metal box.

The sculpture might even be OK if it were in some small-town gallery or in the parking lot of a small-cap company in Iowa. But, we are talking about the National Gallery here. Supposedly this art would be the best available, since the government prints its own money and is not afraid to spend large sums of it. And they consider a rusty cube to be worthwhile?

That is probably my biggest problem with such art: the inherent snobbery, the “this is clearly genius, and you are just too stupid to understand it” attitude that the artists and museum curators thrust upon you.

One artist’s bio (at the Hirshhorn Gallery) included this passage:

“His Trashcan Snake, for example, is an actual trashcan pulled off the beach, put in precise juxtaposition to a pile of spray painted metal chain, and placed in the gallery. In all of Handforth’s work, his distortion of the ordinary encourages us to doubt the reliability of our perceptions, making us aware of how our subjective experiences and emotions influence our understanding of our surroundings.”

No. Seriously, no. If you put a trashcan next to a chain, I do not suddenly “doubt the reliability of” my perceptions. I do not think, “Oh, I used to perceive my trashcan at home as being just a trashcan, but now I realize that it is really a trashcan with a metal chain next to it! My subjective emotions must have influenced my understanding of my kitchen.” No, I perceive my kitchen trashcan as being a trashcan, and I perceive a junked trashcan next to a junked chain to be junk. If you honestly have thoughts resembling anything like what you wrote in Handforth’s bio, then you are one of only 5 or 6 people in the entire world who have such thoughts after seeing a trashcan and chain. And those are simply the 5 or 6 people who can afford the really good drugs.

I am not saying you should not visit the East Building. There is some stuff there that even I thought was good, like the giant mobile in the main lobby. A piece consisting mostly of hand tools I actually found to be somewhat attractive. The building itself is an attempt at a work of art, since I believe that none of the walls came together at a right angle. This can have humorous consequences, though, such as the men’s bathroom door that is continuously slammed against the wall because it opens inward into a 75-degree angle, when everyone subconsciously assumes it will open at least 90 degrees.

And, if you are like me, you can be entertained by the humor inside, such as the overly long title for one piece: “Wall Drawing #65. Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.” (The actual artwork was a white wall that the artist had scribbled all over using 4 colored pencils.)

If you really want to see some good weird art, though, I would recommend the Hirshhorn.

Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn building is surrounded by sculptures, and the building itself resembles a sculpture.

It is filled with artwork that is, well, interesting. Most of it is certainly creative, though.

One circular hallway is filled with pieces that look like something from a junior high science fair. They are, at least, visually interesting.

Another room-sized piece is entitled Black Hole, or something like that, but it reminded me of a tornado going through a wood-frame house.

At least a couple of the artists incorporated video, which is hard to take a photograph of. However, my favorite piece of artwork was a 30-minute video displayed on a regular TV.

It was a video of a chain reaction that the artist had set up. One of those domino-type, needlessly complicated machines where one thing hits another thing, which causes it to fall, which lifts up something else, which knocks over a lit candle, and so on, and so forth. Basically, it was an answer to the question, “how many different ways can we cause something to fall/roll/swing/blow/slide/ignite/pour into something else, causing that something else to in turn also effect something else?” The answer to that question is “a lot”, which is why the video went on for 30 minutes. I had to admire some of the creative ways they came up with to keep the chain going.

Definitely worth the price of admission, which, again, is free.

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