Exploring Washington DC

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sun 28 Nov 2010 23:48
Saturday night
It's our second night in Washington DC - we arrived here yesterday at lunchtime. We took a taxi direct from Jabins with our favourite cab driver, an old guy called James who's a steady driver and not a lunatic which puts him in a minority amongst cabbies. Our hotel, the Marriott, is only a few hundred meters from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. We're at 1331 and that nice Mr Obama is at 1600. We can see the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial from the window of our room so it's pretty central.
After lunch in the hotel, we headed straight out for a look around. We got pretty close to the White House - it's a modest sort of place considering its importance. It's white because they painted it to cover up the scorch marks left when the Brits torched the place during the (pointless) war of 1812. From there, we walked down to the Washington Monument. This is a plain marble obelisk of startling size. When you first see it, you can't really tell how big it is. Then you notice the flags around the base and then the people around the flags. Working back up from them, it's clear that the thing is enormous.
The Washington Monument is on the axis of the National Mall, a swathe of open grass stretching from the dome of the US Capitol at the eastern end to the Lincoln Memorial at the West. Along either side are the museums of the Smithsonian Institution so the Mall manages to combine all the main elements of Washington in a kind of civic version of the Parthenon which is what they were hoping to achieve, I think. All the buildings are deliberately monumental, the Nineteenth Century ones looking like ancient Greek temples and the Twentieth Century ones like overgrown toilets.
We walked down to the Air and Space Museum which gets around 3 million visitors a year. It's got some amazing stuff, including a whole collection of space artefacts. We'd seen the first US space capsule in the Navy Yard at Annapolis and these were the subsequent ones. One was the same size as the one we'd seen before and held a single astronaut for the first US orbital flight. The next one was used for the first US spacewalk so it was a bit larger to hold two men. At the time, the USSR was ahead in the space race and NASA had to work quick. "We need a spacewalk right now. I know, let's put a door in the capsule so one of them can get out." So that's it. The capsule is the size of a cupboard under the stairs and it has a massive door in one side so one of the astronauts can just get up from his chair and get out. The other one just sits there. There's no airlock or anything. They're in orbit and he just opens the door! I always thought that spaceflight was high-tech but this stuff is so basic. It's just submarine technology stuck on top of a huge rocket. These guys were so, so brave. It makes your head spin.
Nearby is the capaule from the first landing on the moon. That's a bit bigger again as it had to hold three men but it's still no size. It still has the scorch marks on it from re-entry. You can stand there right next to something that's been around the moon and back - my mind was boggled. I was talking to Andrea about the power of these objects. Some of the items on display are "real" but they're the backups made at the time. The originals didn't come back. They've got a backup SkyLab and a backup Lunar Landing Module, which are all amazing things, especially how fragile the lander looks but they don't have the power of the bits of metal that actually went out there and came back.
It's all only stuff so the power comes from the touch of history. The capsule is the same before it's been to the moon as it is afterwards but the meaning of the object has been transformed by the journey. Very similar to the way that the touch of the artist transforms an object into a sculpture - a work of art. They're all cultural creations or power objects but I must admit that I find the power of these technical ones much harder to resist than the artistic ones in the sculpture garden in the nextdoor museum.
We watched a 3D IMAX film about the Hubble Space Telescope while we were there. I've seen it before but it was just as impressive second time around, particularly the bit at the end where you're moving among a mass of galaxies, strung out though space. After that, it was time to find some dinner. We chose a fish restaurant which we excellent and then staggered back to the hotel.
Today was sunnier but colder than yesterday. We set off after breakfast to film Andrea/Janeway visiting some of the National Monuments. It took us ages to find a location where we could get the whole of the Washington Monument into shot but that gave us time to appreciate it even more. It's strange that such a famously modest man is remembered with such a giant object. His high ideals are reflected in its pure shape well enough, though, so I suppose it's appropriate in a strange way.
From there, we visited the World War II memorial which is large but doesn't seem to relate to the thing it's commemorating. As an architectural space, it doesn't have any comment on the war and feels as though it was designed by committee. Then on in the biting wind to the Lincold memorial which is much more like a Roman temple with a wonderful statue of him inside. He's the one who held the Union together through the Civil War and he sits, resolute and forceful, staring down the Mall past the Washinton Memorial and on to the Capitol where Congress meets.
To either side of the statue are his two major speeches engraved into the walls of the temple. The Gettysburg Address and his acceptance speech for his second term as President are both powerful and idealistic arguments for the sanctity of the Union of the States and the equality of all the people in them. The Gettysburg Address talks of how the deeds of the men who fought and died on the battlefield will live in history long after the words spoken there are forgotten but that's not what actually happened. It's Lincoln's words that live on and the ideals they represent while I think everyone would rather forget the wholesale butchery that took place during the war. This really is a country that reveres the written word.
Nearby is the Vietnam Memorial which is beautifully simple and affecting. Mirror-polished black marble has engraved on it the names of every American who died or is still missing in that longest war. It's quite overwhelming. The wedge shape of the wall takes you into the ground as you walk along so that it's like seeng a seem of rock bearing the names - like fossils. The death of so many of their young men seems to have been the primary American experience of that conflict and has affected their willingness to get involved in other wars since so the memorial still seems very relevant. By the time we'd looked at that, I had lost my body heat so we had to do a brisk march back to the hotel to drop off the filming gear and have a hot coffee in our room to warm up.
After having lunch in the diner at the top of the road, we set off to see the Museum of the American Indian at the Capitol end of the National Mall. On the way, we walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to find the Navy Memorial which I'd read about as having a "granite ocean". Indeed it does. It's a large open plaza surrounded by water flowing over steps. Indide the water, there's a circular space with a map of the world laid out with the land and seas picked up in different colour stone. The projection is from above the USA so you can see the North Pole and most of the land mass of the world but not the Antarctic. We were able to walk through our entire voyage so far and see where we're going next. The whole thing was lovely and made more so by the single statue of a lone sailor, coat blowing in an ocean breeze and hands thrust deep into his pockets to escape the cold - just as we were today.
We carried on from there to the Indian museum which looks very different to the other Smithsonians in that it's rough-hewn and curved with native plants around it. Inside, there's a huge atrium with a domed cieling and 4 recent versions of native boats just sitting around. We worked out that the galleries were upstairs so set off for the first one entitled "Our Universes" which had a series of confusing exhibits about how the different tribes/nations saw their world. There was no context to any of it and it just seemed like random chat about how North was red and/or white and/or green depending on who you listened to but, hey, this is all cultural relativism and one universe is just as true as any other. The next gallery, "Our Peoples" was much better and had some lovely artefacts and a lot of old guns and provocative videos but it was hard to work out what anything actually was.
I must admit that I wasn't expecting very much of the Indian Museum but, even so, I was disappointed. We walked back to the hotel again in the dark and freezing wind with the Washington Monument floodlit against the night sky. Just as well it was floodlit as the street lights are appalling and it was hard to see the pavement. That seems to be typical of the Captial of the Free World. It's incredibly grand in some ways and then scruffy around the edges everywhere else. Typical of the USA, then.