Notes from Washington DC

I am supposedly on holiday in Washington DC. I say supposedly because this place – home to the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and a zoo, as well as assorted other state collections – is a museum geek nirvana and I’m endeavouring to see as much of it as possible. It turns out that trying to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of museum visits into four days is a bit of a challenge. So far, I’ve spent most of my time in the National Gallery of Art, which is located on two neighbouring sites: the West Building is all gorgeous 1930s grandeur and absolutely freaking enormous; the East Building is its newer, smaller, 1970s cousin and focuses on 20th and 21st century art practice. The latter was designed by I.M. Pei and it’s worth a visit for the architecture alone – Pei has wrapped his stunning, angular building around the largest Calder mobile I’ve ever seen and the flow of a visit repeatedly returns you to views over the central atrium where it’s located. But don’t worry, I’ll spare you the holiday slideshow. What I really want to share are a couple of things that have caught my blogging eye – the Children’s Garden at the United States Botanic Gardens, and what I consider to be a pretty dodgy interpretation activity at the National Air and Space Museum.

Washington DC, like Canberra, is a capital city built from scratch. Unlike the creeping urban accumulations that are characteristic of cities like London, Washington existed first on a piece of paper. The vista that runs from the Capitol, down the length of the National Mall (lined with museums), to the Washington Monument and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial is of an extraordinary scale. The effect is very impressive, and not exactly subtle on the symbolism – this is nation-building on steroids. The US Botanic Gardens is at one end of the Mall, near the Capitol. It’s most striking feature is the Conservatory, an elegant glass-domed structure that underwent extensive restoration in the late 1990s. The piped-in birdsong didn’t really do it for me, but it was otherwise a total treat and packed with spectacle and wonder – hundreds of plants, big and small, from numerous climates hot and cold.

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The Children’s Garden is roughly square in shape, open to the elements from above, and otherwise enclosed on all four sides by the Conservatory. It isn’t an enormous area – you could probably walk across it in about 30-40 paces – but the most has been made of the available space, which is sectioned into different activity zones. The centre is dominated by a small climbing structure that – I can testify – is just large enough for an adult but is obviously best suited to those built lower to the ground. Steps and rope-bridges lead from one platform to the next, and the walls are lined with richly-textured panels made out of natural materials, such as pebbles, bark, seed pods and fibres. To either side of this structure is an installation of gigantic, silver dandelions, and a vine-covered trellis walkway.

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Behind the climbing structure was my favourite section, a little workstation with child-sized trowels, shovels, watering cans and brooms. Next to it were some low planting beds and a row of potted basil plants, waiting to be planted.  A sequence of tall, thin poles, located in the furthest corner, didn’t look much until a child started running around them – the movement triggered a cloud of water vapour to burst from the upper sections of the poles and temporarily obscure the view of the garden. This was met with much happy shrieking and was enjoyed by adults and kids alike. Dotted throughout were little seats and benches, some shaped like toadstools. The whole garden was so inviting – and barely a primary colour in sight.

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Having seen quite a few child-friendly activity areas in museum and galleries, it was great to see the equivalent in a garden. The same principles of interactivity, hands-on exploration of materials, and open-ended play that are applied in museums and galleries were also used here. The small touches made a positive difference too and showed the close attention that had been paid to their target audience – a hole in the middle of a gate was perfect for crawling through if you were little; and a recess underneath the climbing structure made a cosy den, complete with table and a bench that –  I can testify – was not large enough for an adult. I wish we could have paint, plaster and clay as freely available for drop-in making as the Children’s Garden had earth, plants and water available for drop-in gardening.

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A bit further up the Mall is the National Air and Space Museum. It is vast, which isn’t surprising given that it’s stuffed full of planes, rockets and spacecraft. I like any museum that causes my jaw to drop to the floor, and there were plenty of awe-inspiring exhibits. There was one interactive, however, that also left my jaw on the floor, but for the wrong reasons. In the ‘America by Air’ section, the history of commercial jet travel is introduced. The first ‘air stewardesses’ were nurses, a training that could come in handy during the loud, bumpy and unpleasant early flying conditions. It was mostly businessmen and the wealthy who could afford to fly, and the exhibit shows how, over the course of the 1960s and 70s, women’s uniforms got ever-shorter and the advertising for airlines got more lurid.

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In amongst this display is an activity titled, ‘Could You Be a Stewardess in the Early 1950s?’ A mocked up ‘Girls Wanted’ poster is next to a full-length mirror where girls are encouraged to look at themselves and then go through the checklist to see if they would make the cut – is your smile friendly and sincere? Is your make-up neat and natural? Is your blouse fresh and pressed? And the final instruction – smile! I don’t understand what a child is supposed to take from this – do girls really need to have the message reinforced that their appearance is all that counts? How are they supposed to feel if they don’t measure up? With the relentless pressure of social media driving young children to become increasingly obsessed with their looks, isn’t this just another twist of the knife? I can see that for an adult audience, it could come across as playful and a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not convinced that children would see it that way too. For balance, I should also mention that the display included the experiences of the first women pilots and even had a pilot’s maternity uniform from the early 1990s. It also told of the transition ‘from air stewardess to flight attendant’, how men entered the profession, and how uniforms became more professional.  

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Being able to wander up and down the Mall, from collections of natural history to aeronautics to visual arts to botanics, and all within a stone’s throw of each other, is an amazing privilege. The majority of the museums are free too, so it’s easy to pop in and out. I’d become a bit complacent about free museum access in London, but coming here has reminded me of how lucky we are.

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