Washington DC is known for its many world-class museums; and the most of notable of them all is of course the Smithsonian Institution. Nicknamed "the nation's attic," the Smithsonian is comprised of 19 museums (most of them in DC, especially around the National Mall), 12 public gardens, 9 research centers, and a zoo, with all together an unparallel holding of 138 millions items of artifacts, biological specimen, and work of art - easily the largest museum complex in the world.
For all its glory, Smithsonian was amusingly named after an Englishman, James Smithson (1765-1829), who had no known American connection, in fact had never even set foot on American soil. Quite why he endowed his considerable fortune (reportedly 105 sacks full of gold sovereigns, equivalent to some $11M today) to found "an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" in a remote country, remains a mystery today. Anyway, the congress gladly took the money, and after a decade of messing around (invested, lost, and eventually restored the money), finally decided to establish an scientific research institution.
Over the years the museum just kept on growing and growing. US Navy's circumnavigation of the globe, exploration of the wild wild west, as well as private donations all added millions and millions of items to the collection. At first all were stored and displayed in its original Norman-styled Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as "The Castle." Soon they ran out of room and have to split up the collection into branches all over the town, then all over the country (AZ, MA, MD, NY, and VA), and soon all over the world (currently in Panama, and soon to be in UK). The Castle nowadays serves as the office and sort of visitor center for the institution. Not a bad idea really, since it's got a spacious and agreeable garden that was the perfect rest stop between all the toiling to go through the formidable list of Smithsonian museums.
Not sure if they realize it, but I think DC school kids are probably the luckiest bunch in the entire country. Any subject materials for a school project, be it art, music, history, literature, and the sciences, are readily available in one of the 17 Smithsonian museums and zoo around town, all free of charge. All it takes is a stroll around the National Mall, where you'll pass the African American History and Culture Museum (1st), African Art Museum (2nd ), Air and Space Museum (3rd), American History Museum (4th, 5th),...
American Indian Museum (1st, 2nd), Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (3rd, 4th), Natural History Museum (5-6th), and much else... What else do you need for a lifetime of education?
Let's start from the most exciting of them all, the Air and Space Museum. Over the years, we've visited most aerospace museums in California, and many more in the other states. Most of them consisted of a huge lot and a hangar in some remote, desolate spot, where dozens of retired aircrafts from the air force, the navy, or various airlines were lazily parked around. The Smithsonian collection was also in a enormous building that also kind of look like a hangar; but its breadth and quality were in a league of its own. With over 60,000 aircrafts and spacecrafts, this is the largest aeronautic and aerospace collection the world has ever seen. They simply couldn't all fit on the floor (despite its 161,145 sq ft of floor space) so quite a few of them had to be dangled densely in the air, layer by layer.
It was not just the quantity that impressed; these were all treasures of aviation and aerospace history. Right above our heads now was Linbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the rock star of its age (a puny little single-engine Ryan NYP that achieved the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, 3 pix). On the other side of the ceiling was the aeronautic speed champ of all time, the rocket-powered North American X-15 (last 3). Its record speed of 4,520 MPH or Mach 6.72, set in the 1960s, remain unbroken today. Just these two items would trump any other air museum we ever visited.
And there were more riveting hotshot memorabilia from aviation history: Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1, which broke the sound barrier in 1947 (1st 2 pix); Amelia Earhart's bright red Lockheed 5B Vega (3rd, 4th), a fetish for the feminists; the MacCready Gossamer Condor (last), first controlled and sustainable man-power aircraft.
The Wright brother and their 1903 Flyer now got their own exhibition hall, which was decorated to be like their original bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. It was clearly a great age for amateur scientists and inventors. Who would expect two small town bicycle makers, neither of them finished high school, could educate themselves to become the world's leading aeronautic experts, to invent the three-axis control of modern airplanes, to build the world's first wind tunnel, and to lift themselves to the first controlled, powered, sustained, aerodynamic human flight? Unimaginable today. The 1903 flyer, with its hand-crafted wooden frame and natural fabric finish, plus an awkward groveling position for the pilot, looked comically like an odd piece of furniture rather than the cutting-edge technology and ground-breaking invention of its age. But shook the world it did, and the aviation era thus began.
Despite their prominent position among the exhibits today, probably few people remember, the Wrights' achievement wasn't acknowledged at all by the Smithsonian for 45 years. The belated recognition owed much to the Wrights' main competitor in the race for the first powered manned flight, S. P. Langley, then the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. For decades, the Smithsonian brazenly displayed Langley's creation, the Aerodrome (a public failure, as it dived repeatedly onto the Potomac River), as the first successful powered manned flyer, despite the Wrights' protests. The Smithsonian even went so far as to allow the aviator Glenn Curtiss to extensively modify the Aerodrome in 1914 for a flight test, to retrospectively prove that Aerodrom was capable of flying. It was not until 1948, after much drama and bad publicity, when the error was finally corrected.
Anyway, it was a different world after man mastered the magic of flying and was liberated from the embrace of gravity. Commercial airplanes were produced to carry passengers (the Ford Trimotor "Tin Goose", 1925-1933, 1st) and mails (Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing, 1927-1931, 2nd & 3rd); but the first airliner in a modern sense is Boeing 247-D (4th), with innovative designs such as retractable landing gear, supercharged, air-cooled engines, and an autopilot. It may elude us now, that early air travel is costly, slow (both low speed and frequent stops), extremely uncomfortable, and not without a sense of adventure (in 1929 one was 2,000 times more likely to die in an airline accident than today). That's why a reliable and practically indestructible plane like the Douglas DC-3 (2nd row) became so sought after. One of the most successful aircraft of all time, the DC-3 is so durable that some of them are still in commercial operation today, despite of being nearly 80 years old. As the saying goes, "the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3."
WWII brought about quite a few legendary aircrafts from both sides: the Supermarine Spitfire Jeremy Clarkson kept yapping about (most successful British aircraft during the war, 1st) and its nemesis, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 (flown by the ace of all time, Erich Hartmann, who had 352 recorded victory and miraculously survived the war, 2nd); the American had the Mustang P51D (3rd); the Japanese got their Zero (ferocious dog fighter, much like Japanese soldiers, 4th); even the Italian came up with their Macchi C.202, which was not a bad plane really, despite its many glitches (an idiosyncrasy inherited by Italian automobiles today, 5th).
Wars have always been the greatest driving force for innovation. Towards the end of WWII, we've seen development of Jet engine. (Bell P-59 Airacomet in 1st 2 pix, first American jet fighter to take off in 1942. The German was earlier still, but the museum didn't have a copy of their 1941 Me 262), cruise missile (German V-1 in the 3rd pic, hanging above), and ballistic missile (German V-2, 3rd and 4th pix). Some speculated that if the above technologies were mature enough for extensive applications by the Fuehrer and his ruthless gang, the outcome of the war could be very, very different.
The end of the WWII signified the beginning of a new war without combat, but much more costly, enduring, and far-reaching. The Cold War. Never before in history has ideological divergence taken such a central role in world stage. There were nuclear stalemate, espionage games, propaganda shootouts, and before long the cold war was inevitably elevated to a space extravaganza. With rocket technology and scientists kidnapped from Germany, the US and the Soviet began a duel for racing beyond the atmosphere. The Soviet gained upper hand in the first couple rounds by first shooting a volleyball-size satellite (the Sputnik 1) into orbit in 1957, then sent a man (Yuri Gararin) into space in 1961. The humiliating defeats prompted J. F. Kennedy announced that "we choose to go to the moon" and poured tens of billions of dollars and committed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them the greatest minds of the age, into the Apollo program -- it was easily the single most costly peace time project ever in history. Finally in July 1969, as the whole nation holding their breath, Neil Armstrong took his small step onto the surface of the moon (siginifying a giant leap for mankind as well as NASA's annual budget). I stood in front of the Apollo 11 lunar module now (an actual backup module, the original one was of course partially left on the moon), marveling at how flimsy it looks. I mean, for that kind of money, you would expect something shiny and slick like what you see in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek. But it was a bit disappointing in visual appeal. The lower descend module (for landing on the moon) was loosely wrapped with black and gold metal foils, which was secured by Kapton tapes; the black and silver upper ascend module (for take off and return) had a strangely deformed and dented surface, with clumsy nut and bold works all around. It honestly looked more like an over-sized high school science project than a technological wonder that was capable of sending two astronauts onto the moon and back. In the 5th pic is the weatherworn command module that orbit the moon during the landing. I recall in a scene of The West Wing, the president played by Martin Sheen, out of all collections of the National Gallery and the Smithsonians, actually asked for Apollo 11 to decorate the White House. Of course he didn't get it, and I seriously doubted that he ever examined the whole thing closely. It's not something that would make your lobby look good.
After the Soviet failed to launch a manned mission to the moon, the space race started to cool off; but space exploration never looked back. After the moon, we built larger and more powerful rockets, followed by space stations (Sky lab, Apollo-Soyuz, ISS, and much else), which established a more or less permanent dwelling for human in space, and eventually space shuttles for easier and repeatable access. We reached for the stars, and "touched the face of God." But still, with the demise of Soviet and the tragedy of the Columbia shuttle, the motivation for human space flight dwindled. Politicians were skeptical on the value of space travel and put tighter clamp on space travel budget, arguing that robots are safer, cheaper, and perform a better job. The retirement of the last American shuttle in 2011 marked the end of an era. This of course produced an outcry of the space science community, which argued that space travel is the apex of human achievement and is worth every penny we spent, for it serves our primordial desire to know our place in the universe. On a practical level, it promotes technological advancement and provides a distant future prospect of space migration... To me there are no obvious right and wrong in such debate between the pragmatists and the idealists, and it will never end.
Other exhibits, which include some exquisite airplane and aircraft carrier models.
The National Museum of Natural History is one of the more attractive Smithsonian branches. With some 8 million annual visitors (2013), it's the third most visited museum in the world - the fact that it is free and opens all year long certainly helps.
The collection was quite similar to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC we just visited, so I won't elaborate too much here. However, I should point out that the exhibit here were apparently more lively, creative, and sometimes daring. For instance, the animal specimen here were thoughtfully posed to display the more dynamic side of their lives, making it a lot more exciting for the kids believe me.
Another instance was these 2,200 year old Egyptian mummies just right there behind the glass, in the flesh, bare naked and uncensored. One of them was just a toddler, poor thing. It made you think, what strange notions we used to have, to preserve one's flesh and bones without any major organs (bellies cut opened and internal organs all removed, brains sucked out through the nostrils) as vessel of soul and vital force in an afterlife. What's funny, when they mummified a bull (4th), they went a step further and consumed all the beef and left just a skeleton in the mummies, as revealed by X-ray. The Egyptian, while deeply religious, were practical people after all.
More exhibits. In the first 2 pix is a Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis), a primitive species before antler was evolved. It instead developed a tusk-like elongated canine teeth, a rare sight among herbivores, for display and competition for mates. A rather discordant feature to be seen in a herbivore.
The International Spy Museum is one of the few DC museums that brazenly charges an admission fee, an audacious proposition considering the numerous high-quality Smithsonian museums and public institutions around, all free of charge. But of course there're good reasons for that. In such a hotbed of international espionage as Washington DC, the Spy Museum features the largest exhibit of international espionage artifacts in the world, providing a tacky yet entertaining diversion from the solemn Smithsonian collection. I mean, where in the Smithsonian can you find anything that rivals James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, fully loaded with "machine gun, tire slasher, oil jet, smoke screen, tear gas deterrence, dashboard radar screen, rotating license plate, and ejector seat"? Or Elliot Carver's fiendish Sea-Vac Drill with grinding teeth all over (007: Tomorrow Never Die, 1997)?
Fiction aside, the reality of the spy world is equally fascinating. Say you took on an assassination job of in the public, in broad daylight; what weaponry would you choose? Consult the museum catalog and you'll have a riveting list of options issued by CIA, KGB, British Intelligence etc. If you preferred fire arms, there were a number of pistols, disguised as flashlight, tobacco pipe, pen, cigarette lighter, cigarette case, or even cigarette. If you're a lady, you'll have an additional option of employing an exquisite KGB 1965 issue lipstick pistol, "the kiss of death." If your hit happen to be in a greyish city like London, a good option will be this KGB-crafted umbrella that can fire a single poisonous pellet -- it's a true story, and the victim was Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov, terminated by the Bulgarian secret police in 1987.
The French, never to be outdone, was well-represented by a pair of 19-century antique mini ring gun that can be easily concealed within the palm - What KGB? What CIA? N'impote quoi, we were way ahead of the game even before they were born... Now if there is a good hiding place, you should consider a gas assassin rifle; yes it's a bit long and clumsy, but it can stealthily fire a flechette that quietly penetrates the victim in the flesh. If you're old school and deft with blades, there was a vast collection of daggers, knives, swords, bobbins, smatchets, and jabbers to choose from... God it was a dangerous world out there.
Equally amusing were these obsolete espionage instruments. Unlike the progress of sneaky fire arms, which seemed stagnant in recent decades, the advancement espionage electronic had to be measured exponentially, thanks to the magic of semiconductors. Those were the days, when the agents had to carrier a giant briefcase to conceal a bulky radio transceiver, or a massive reel recorder to monitor conversations merely 10 feet away. To eavesdropping, cumbersome transmitters had to be elaborately fitted into furniture of the heel of shoes. Clumsy camera setup was required to quickly copy documents. The cutting edge technology of the 1940's was a wrist watch camera, allowing the agent to snap photos when pretending to check the time. It was no easy feat, since there was no view finder and the miniature film scroll could only accommodate 8 photos. Today I won't be surprised if all those functions can be achieved with some clever apps in your phone, or watch. Even my son's got a toy watch that can snap virtually unlimited digital pictures and record voices, among much else.
Lastly, we shall conclude our DC trip with a tour in the world's most recognizable symbol of the democratic political system, the US Capitol building. It was under renovation and was heavily adorned with scaffolding, so it wasn't quite the majestic backdrop in The House of Cards. If you study closely, you'll find the capitol dome neither a house of cards nor of stones, but actually an cast iron structure that painted white to look like a more expensive and classy stone building - not unlike the Underwoods if you think about it. Under the skin-deep democratic facade is the reign of a iron fist - a convenient footnote of their popular quotes: "democracy is overrated..." Well, say what you will, we still haven't found a less wicked substitute for it. By the way, the renovation was reportedly to repair the propagating cracks on the iron dome - just like what we've been doing on our democratic system for centuries. If we do it right, and with some luck, hopefully the whole thing's gonna last for another while.
Exterior details. At least all these exquisite relief seemed to be carved from real marble.
The vast visitor center was lined with statues of worthies from individual states. There were astronaut, inventor (Philo Farnsworth the father of TV, who should be held accountable for polluting and stupefying generations of American youths), Native American chief, king (Kamehameha I of Hawaii), and of course, politicians (among them the dazzling Fredric Douglas, who should be more appropriately called a statesman).
And there were writer (the admirable Hellen Keller, portraited here as a 7-year old girl), tour guide (not just any tour guide obviously, but the native American Sakakawea who led Lewis and Clark into the wilderness), educator (Maria Sanford, the first female college professor), and missionary. It was an running account of the courage, ingenuity industriousness, and kindness that made America such a great country. In the Amancipation Hall was the original plaster model for the Statue of Freedom (last 3) on top of the dome. A fine-looking lady with an odd outfit, she wears a military helmet decorated with a feather crest, a chiton covered by a Native American-style blanket. Her face looked stunned, presumably after seeing her outfit in a mirror.
It was a brief tour, when we were hastily herded through incredibly dark corridors and meeting halls. Bismarck said it well, law and sausage are the two things you don't want to see being made. It was so dark that even the bust of old Abe Lincoln looked sleepy. Unfortunately, due to the construction, we were not able to enter the rotunda, which is reportedly the best part. So we left the building with a pretty dark impression - no wonder these people couldn't pass a budget, couldn't confirm a Supreme Court nomination, and in general couldn't get anything done, if you pay attention to the news.
So there it is, our brief trip to DC, the capital of our great nation. Honestly, if we set aside all the added glamour and collected resources of a large and prosperous nation, DC was really a ordinary little provincial town. And not a particular charming one at that, if you consider its uninspiring downtown, mediocre sports teams, and notorious high crime rate - not a place I would incline to live in. However, for a patriotic and historic educational tour, and to feel the pulse of the most powerful, most generous, most vigorous, and in general the greatest nation the world have ever seen, there is no better place than this. And that of course was the whole point.
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