Tag Archives: smithsonian institution

USA 2019 – 14 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 21 MAR 2021

There’s nothing more disappointing than finding your most eagerly anticipated tourist sight or experience covered in scaffolding and men at work signs. This then is exactly what awaited me as I, who suffers from a life long love and admiration for all things aeronautical, shuffled across the National Mall to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, having just spent the last couple of hours wandering through the halls of the incredible National Museum of American History. Clearly then the grey skies, dripping trees, and puddles of fresh rain water on the concrete perfectly suited that very moment when I turned the corner and discovered my eagerly awaited unicorn under all the cranes, scaffolding, and hard hat signs.

Of course, just because massive swathes of its space is closed for renovation, it doesn’t mean that the museum has entirely shut up shop, and so I joined the throng of excited visitors, cleared through security, and stepped into the impressive Milestones of Flight entrance hall, decked out with an incredible array of historical aircraft, including gems like the Spirit of St Louis, the Bell X-1, SpaceShipOne, and even the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia!

From there I wandered through the interactive, kid-focused How Things Fly exhibit, followed by a jaw-dropping walk about the Space Race floor that is devoted to all things rockets, including the infamous German V-2 rocket. Next to that was a hall dedicated to exploring the universe, examining solar systems and the instruments that we have developed to better study it, and across the passage, the Moving Beyond Earth immersive exhibition that places you “in orbit” as part of the shuttle and space-station era – allowing you to explore recent human spaceflight and future possibilities.

At the time of my visit, the only halls open on the second floor included one looking at the origin of powered flight through the lens of the Wright Brothers and their 1903 Wright Flyer, and another that focuses on Time and Navigation, detailing how revolutions in timekeeping over the years have influenced how we find our way. Hello GPS!

And unfortunately that was that. With about half of its floor space lost to the ongoing renovations, and almost the entirety of its collection of planes now stored at the museum’s secondary Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in nearby Virginia, this particular museum experience, while as incredibly interesting and engaging as what it was, just didn’t have what I was really looking forward to seeing the most: airplanes! (Spoiler alert though – the very last thing that I did manage to do on this particular USA 2019 business trip as I waited for my plane to depart from Dulles International Airport, was catch a bus to a certain spot in Virginia…)

USA 2019 – 13 Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 20 MAR 2021

My third day in Washington D.C. started out with grey clouds and a sprinkling of rain. Early breakfast at the hotel done, and underground Metro successfully navigated, I walked across the National Mall and up the stairs to stand in front of the solemn stone monolithic building that houses the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Of course it was at this point that the heavens truly opened and I stood in the rain, soaking up what felt to be just about every single raindrop that fell on that soggy morning. When the doors were finally flung open and we made it past security, there I was, a truly drowned rat that just so happened to have the most massive of silly grins on its face.

Originally opened in 1964 under the banner of Museum of History and Technology, the year 1980 saw the museum adopt its new moniker of National Museum of American History, a much stronger representation of its mission to collect, care for, study, and interpret objects that reflect the history and experience of the American people. Having undergone a couple of renovations since the early 2000’s, the National Museum of American History is a behemoth of a museum to visit. Spread over three exhibition floors, each with its own wings and lined with artifact walls, the museum is packed with a mesmerizing number and variety of displays, items of interest, and exhibitions, stretching wildly across the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history.

For those interested in conquest and power, the third floor focuses on the military history of the United States, as well as the American Presidency, and even an exhibition regarding the First Ladies of America (I can’t really explain that last one). On the other side of the hall, sport, music and culture gets a nod, and for my particular visit there even stood a temporary exhibit of classic American quilts. The second floor is pinned by the original Star Spangled Banner Flag, and features rotating exhibits that consider American ideals, such as who people are who make up the United States of America, how did they live, where did they come from, and what it took to ensure voting rights for all.

The first floor is focused on exhibits revolving around transportation and technology, detailing America’s modes of transportation over the years, inventors and inventions, science in terms of robots and America’s future, and even a recreation of Julia Child’s famous kitchen whilst looking at the impact of Food Technology as a whole. The final lower level of the museum features a number of smaller exhibits including one showing the impact of American commerce on the world stage, and believe it or not, a Gallery of Numismatics, i.e. the study or collection of currency.

As you may then guess, it takes literal hours to walk through this fascinating museum and its ode to all things American, and thus the chance of absorbing every little detail is virtually zero. That said, as you may be able to tell just from the size of the photo gallery featured down below, this little nugget of information was surely nowhere near good enough to stop me from trying my best to do so!

Besides, who can say no to any museum that counts and so confidently displays a blindingly neon lit Batman Forever Batmobile so prominently as part of its collection!?

USA 2019 – 08 Pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 22 FEB 2021

So having spent the previous afternoon happily exploring the area around the national mall, taking in architecture, statues and so, so many memorials, I changed the pace a little the next morning and headed out northwest via Washington D.C.’s relatively pretty subway stations, exiting at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan and then taking the short uphill stroll to stop in front of the concrete lion guarded entrance of the National Zoological Park, aka the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Located at the sprawling Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, having been founded all the way back in 1889. Covering an area of 66 ha, this zoo is even larger than the immense San Diego Zoo (40 ha) which I visited back in 2016, and is home to around 2700 or so animals, spread over 390 different species – a fifth of which are on either the globally endangered or threatened species list. (And yes, because this is part of the Smithsonian Institution, entrance to the zoo is completely free.)

So as you might imagine then, with that amount of space and animals at its disposal, the National Zoo demands a fair bit of your time to take a stroll through. The zoo experience is made up of a whole heap of interconnected themed spaces that you can move between, including the various trails like the Asia Trail, Elephant Trails, the American Trail, Amazonia, and Lion and Tiger Hill, as well as big standalone exhibits like the Giant Panda Habitat, the Great Ape House, Think Tank, Cheetah Conservation Station, Gibbon Ridge, the Reptile Discovery Center, the Bird House, Lemur Island and the Small Mammal House. There’s also the children specific attraction The Kids’ Farm – useful if just seeing all these wonderfully exotic creatures isn’t quite enough to hold their attention for the full day!

Discounting the African species which we have enough of back home, the National Zoo definitely held a couple of personal animal highlights for me – like the incredibly floofy Giant Panda, the goofy looking Sloth Bear, and the stoic, powerful American Bison. The Orangutans were delightful (the “O Line” crossing is wonderful to behold), Arapaimas incredibly unusual in shape and size, and of course, just as they did for us back in Kyoto, the adorable Red Pandas totally stole the show.

In addition to all the exotic (for me) animals on display, given that Washington D.C. was starting to move into Autumn territory at the time of my visit, the incredible mass of trees that also call the zoo home were all starting to undergo their colour transformation – leading to an even greater visual experience for me seeing as this isn’t a spectacle that I ever get to witness back home in the Mediterranean climate profile that is Cape Town. (In other words, I took a LOT of time wandering about the zoo with a very big goofy grin on my face.)

The weather was nice and cool, the clouds meant that it wasn’t a sweaty affair, and a little cloudburst served to inject a little extra entertainment into the proceedings. And of course I took photos. Lots and lots of photos…

USA 2019 – 04 The Memorials and Museums of the National Mall in Washington DC (2019-10-25) Photo Gallery | Travel Attractions 15 OCT 2020

If you are a history buff, enjoy grandiose memorials and monuments, or simply love absorbing knowledge wherever you go, then there is simply no finer American location for this than Washington D.C.’s incredible National Mall, the giant landscaped park area pinned by the famous Washington Monument in the middle, bounded on either side by the United States Capitol and the exquisite Lincoln Memorial, and flanked along its length by the grounds of the White House and countless Smithsonian museums (including the famous Smithsonian Institution Building aka The Castle) and other national arts and cultural institutions.

With long walkways and plenty of lawns stretching out all around you, this stretch of green is incredibly popular with the locals as an exercise and relaxation venue, though of course they have to contend with the never ending throngs of both domestic and international tourists picking their way through this smorgasbord of knowledge and culture. (So yes, this means a lot of busses, a lot of electric scooters, and a lot of foot traffic!)

And smorgasbord of things to take in it honestly is. The reality is you probably need more than a week to get a taste of everything on offer. For example, in terms of landmarks and museums contained in the National Mall proper, you have the National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, West Building of the National Gallery of Art, East Building of the National Gallery of Art, National Museum of the American Indian, National Air and Space Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution Building, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of African Art, and the exquisite National Museum of African American History and Culture. (And bear in mind, most of these are also paired with a garden or landscape to explore as well!).

The eastern end of the National Mall includes features like the imposing United States Capitol, Union Square and the United States Botanic Garden, while to the west lies the majority of monuments and memorials, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National World War II Memorial, Constitution Gardens, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

And then there are all the nearby attractions which should all be included in the above lists but simply aren’t: for example, the White House, Library of Congress, United States Supreme Court Building, National Postal Museum, Union Station, Tidal Basin, Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

While I managed to at least catch a glimpse of every single item mentioned in the above list, my three days in Washington DC meant that I had to pick and choose between what I really wanted to get a taste of – and as you can see from all the items that I hyperlinked above, I only really managed to squeeze in about 12. Not a bad number, but man did my poor aching feet hate me so much! (In hindsight, maybe I should have tried my luck by precariously balancing on one of those electric rideshare scooter things!)

The museums were fascinating, the memorials somber, the beautiful stone architecture grandiose, and all this was paired with the start of Autumn’s magnificent foliage color change. An incredible experience and opportunity for sure.