We visited Washington, D. C. for the first time in almost two decades. Separately and together we have come a half dozen times, but in the years since our last visit our travels have taken us to at least half a dozen national capitals and historic cities, giving us opportunities for comparisons. Part of the memorial
Washington is a marvelous city, and this year we styed in the perfect part of town, just a couple of blocks from the National Mall, surrounded by earnest young people, most of whom are apparently planning to stay in the Capital only temporarily, while they figure out how to make their fortunes. They are all charming and polite and in a hurry. Police Horses
There is always something unexpected happening. Early in our stay we decided to walk up the Mall and noticed many police cars with lights flashing. Naturally we walked closer and found more and nore police vehicles near the Capitol: bicycles, cars and motorcycles, horses and buses. We learned that this was the annual memorial service for law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. The buses were full of relatives from across the country, who walked with their police escorts to the seats where they would hear President Obama speak. We were struck by the many different uniforms, in many different colors (the powder blue uniforms were the most remarkable). Asian Street Fair Banners
May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month; so the next day we encountered a small street fair of Asians and Pacific Islanders, with booths serving foods and selling regional arts and crafts. Food trucks and flags and banners stretched a few blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue. The following day when we left our building we were told by a passerby that we had just missed a parade.
On Memorial Day weekend we watched the Rolling Thunder annual gathering: thousands, apparently, of motorcycles rolled up the parade route, cheerfully waving to spectators. The motorcycles were a delight -- every color and style and size under the sun, clearly loved and tended by their owners, who maintained a stately pace (which kept the noise down).
On Monday the annual parade followed much the same route, with many flags and high school marching bands and slightly larger crowds of spectators. Waiting to March
There are so many parades here that, just as in Paris, people on the streets maintain a strict policy of Not Being Excited. With the exception of small children, the relatives of marchers, and elderly retired librarians, no one even turns a head.
We re-learned Washington's lesson that the best-loved museums are always quite crowded while the less well-known are wonderfully empty. We were jostled and made grumpy by the National Archives which was filled with teenagers on a school trip; they were much more interested in finding food than in seeing the documents. In the Building Museum
On the other hand, the Building Museum was a true treat. Its building was originally created for the Pension Bureau after the Civil War. Offices and classrooms and exhibit spaces are tucked into the space outside the great hall where there have been at least 18 inaugural balls. It's worth a visit just to ogle at the grand columns. The displays themselves are fascinating. They describe scenes of natural disasters and the efforts made around the world to prevent their recurrence, and to protect people in the event a disaster happens. The museum also celebrates the exciting architecture of new public buildings. One of the best exhibits was a set of photos and explanations of public buildings and their surroundings from around the world. The exhibits are attached to the railings on the second floor; for each one there is an architectural model, which can be seen against the backdrop of the giant columns. A Model in the Building Museum
The National Gallery is a pleasant old friend. It's always fun to see art which has become so familiar. We found lots to enjoy as we wandered from gallery to gallery. The Main Reading Room
Another long-loved museum was new to us -- at least, we had not ever taken a tour. Our tour guide for the Library of Congress was excellent, giving us a mix of history, political trivia, and anecdotes about this beautiful and significant building. We covered a lot of ground, including climbing several flights of stairs, noticing how the marble steps have become rounded from centuries of visitors -- more to be expected in Europe, perhaps, but a reminder that there are some wonderful historic buildings closer to home.
The Newseum is dedicated to the profession of journalism. Even before one enters, a long row of newspaper front pages tells what is most newsworthy in cities across the country. Another display inside echoes the theme, with the display changing every day to be as current as possible. Famous historical events are covered by video and static displays. In balance, we feel that this museum will do a lot to encourage young people to respect news reporters, and to want to have the countries of the world strengthen their support for freedom of the press.
The most powerful two stories, told repeatedly throughout the museum, describe the role the media played leading up to (a) the termination of the Vietnam War; and (b) the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In both cases, the museum shows forcibly that the news stories changed public opinion and led to the political change. The Newseum
The museum we liked best was the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. The experience begins outside, as one walks past landscapes suggesting different parts of the North American continent. Inside, the museum is breathtaking in its complexity, with many different exhibits designed to pull in the curious visitor. One high spot was the cafeteria -- all Smithsonian museums have one, but this one, specializing on traditional dishes from around the country, was most unusual.
Maybe the best part of the visit is the realization that after all of the bickering and complaining and just plain politicking that has been so prominent in the news over the last year or so, Washington is still special. It is the place where history has happened and where the national memory is still refreshed.