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Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Time Event
Day 3 in D.C.
So many museums that I had to cut my visit to one short. Information overload.

Melinda and I started the day off right with a visit to Starbucks just after we left Metro in Chinatown. She headed toward the convention center and I headed toward site-seeing. My first stop was the National Postal Museum. Most of the museum is about as exciting as going to the post office (sorry, NPM) but a few things were neat and one thing spectacular. The neat things were reading about the evolution of envelopes and automated envelope folding. Letters were charged by the page even into the middle of the 19th century, so envelopes were a luxury until around 1840 or so. Within the next 20 years the industry took off, but how to produce so many high-quality envelopes? With machines, of course, and the NPM has a few on display. They look like old adding machines, which makes sense, because both are just configurations of brass gears, arms, levers, and ingenuity. But I found the display surprisingly compelling. The other neat thing was reading about Postal Inspectors, mostly the parts where the inspectors solved crimes and arrested people (Unabomber, mail train heists, etc.).

The spectacular part was the Benjamin Miller collection of rarities. It's even in a vault-decorated room, but justifiably so: the room holds displays of some of the most rare stamps ever printed, including the "Jenny" (the upside-down airplane). Not only can you get within inches (and a sheet of glass) of these rare specimens, but getting to the NPM at 10a on a Sunday meant I had perfect serenity in which to take it all in. Fantastic.

I was done with stamps by 11:30 and had a salad and microbrew rootbeer at the Capitol City brewery, also in the "old" postal building (NPM is in the mammoth building which was actually the D.C. postal building from the 1920s to 1986). The weather held for the entire day today, so all the walking I did was pretty enjoyable (if tiring).

From the brewery I headed to the Botanic Gardens. A nice garden, to be sure, but I wasn't especially impressed. It's way more botany than I'll ever do, of course, but I found it no more striking or amazing than the Conservatory of Flowers in SF. They already have a Christmas tree up and decorated though it's a cut tree. On Friday Melinda and I came across the White house Christmas tree, a 40' living Douglas fir, and found it "decorated" with a net of lights. Groundskeepers especially busy with other things this time of year? Dunno.

More walking. I headed down the Capitol Mall to find the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (the American History museum will open in another week; so close!). Soooo.... many things to see inside! I was a little overwhelmed but found something specific to do: see the Hope diamond (at NPM I learned that it was just *mailed* to its destination, albeit with registered mail and with insurance). The Hope diamond is just one of many spectacular gems in the collection, albeit no doubt the most valuable ($300MM!). Also in the collection is a 25,000 ct topaz, a 14" perfect crystal sphere, and countless other prettiess. I couldn't help but think of The Scepter of Zavandor while looking at rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and sapphires.

The gem exhibit continues on to the minerals exhibit (amethyst, crystals, feldspar, eruptions), then into mining, then digging, then plate tectonics, then ... it was too much. The mineral exhibit, especially, has literally thousands of specimens on display, and it was just too many things to absorb. About half-way through I gave up on trying to grok all that was there and I headed toward the very boring 8-minute video on plate tectonics. +1 for sitting and +1 for not learning anything for a few minutes. One thing I did wonder, while looking at mineral displays, is where not more minerals came from Africa. Each specimen has an origin, and most are from North America, Brazil, parts of Europe, and a few from Russia. Not many from Asia, and I don't recall seeing anything from Africa.

I wandered around a bit more in the museum before heading out. I walked through the new wing, all about the Ocean, but I didn't find it especially engaging. It's a set of beautiful exhibits but somewhat low on content, it felt. Or, maybe I was still overstimulated. In any event I headed on to the mammals exhibit to wrap up the visit. The exhibit shows lots of cute mammals, chosen and juxtaposed for no really clear reason (e.g., why is there a stuffed panda in the display with the fennec fox?). I found a display showing only rodents and took several pictures for Melinda. I watched another video with an oversimplified explanation of evolution, one that, to an objective listener, just isn't credible (it basically suggests that brown bears evolved into polar bears within a few generations). I finished up with some Australian marsupial exhibits then headed out the door.

Two more places to go. Last one on the Mall is the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art. It's art from around the world, not just American art (that'll be my last stop), and in fact mostly it's paintings and a few sculpture (fine art; from the 16th - 18th centuries). I find a map, get lost in the labyrinth, and come to a closed door that I believe should be my passage into the American Painters section. "Closed" says the guard. Uh, really? Why? It's a rotating exhibit, and there's nothing there right now, apparently. There is a tiny exhibit of Ansel Adams and two other people, but it's embarrassingly small (5 Adams photos and about the same from the other two). I ask the guard what else is closed and he points out several other sections(!) that are also closed. Wuh. I'm not disappointed, because this museum was a bonus stop on my tour (and, like all other museums I've been to was free), and because I've seen lots of good art at other, artist- or genre-specific galleries. But still, to be called a national gallery of art, I expected a just a bit more. I find my way up to the French and Dutch 16th century exhibits and admire several Dutch paintings. Not being Catholic much of their painting is not of the crucifixion or saints or martyrs, and instead is of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. The details of some of the paintings is amazing. One, of a church, does just the right treatment with the shadow, fine detail, and imperceptible lines in things like stained glass seen at a distance, to make you doubt that it's a painting.

My final stop is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which conveniently is (a) on the way from the Mall to the Convention Center where I'm meeting Melinda, and (b) is open until 7p, unlike the museums on the Mall that close at 5:30 or 6p. I don't give SAAM justice and only visit a few galleries. The Folk Art exhibit is just too ... folky. There's one especially weird piece that's basically a bunch of furniture covered in aluminum foil by a weird guy, who did this while no one even knew (the work was discovered after his death; he was a janitor by vocation and wrapped furniture and things with aluminum foil by night). I enjoyed several photos of some guy who photo'd over 1,000 memorials across the U.S. And, SAAM had a *real* Ansel Adams exhibit, joint with O'Keeffe paintings. I like Adams's work better, I'm afraid, mostly because Indian/Southwest just doesn't excite me. I'm in SAAM for under an hour, because I need to meet Melinda and a schoolmate for dinner. I'm also pretty much done with walking for the day.

So, in two and a half days I've visited a lot more of D.C. than I expected I could. I've been to all the major museums I could visit , I've walked up and down the Mall more than I needed to, I've seen the obligatory sites (Washington Monument, Lincoln memorial, Declaration of Independence, Air and Space museum), and even saw a political rally. I missed out on: the American History museum; the Zoo or aquarium; seeing the White house up close; going inside the Library of Congress; touring the Bureau of printing and engraving (where money is printed!). If my two and a half days had covered more week and less weekend I could easily have fit in some of these things, and probably could have fit in one more major attraction (American History or Zoo, for example). So, it's about the right length of time, and I don't feel that I'm leaving D.C. with a long agenda for next time. It's been a good visit.

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