Saturday, January 4, 2014

DC Days: Snow Day!

The first snow of 2014. I'm not entirely sure when they started naming snow storms but apparently this one was called "Hercules". This makes me laugh because all I can think of is that part in the Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor. That's probably not what the weather community was going for when they named this storm. I know I'm not the only one who had this thought so maybe try harder with the name next time.

I don't like cold weather. It's weird because I like sweaters and coffee and the way snow looks on trees (especially at night) and a cozy blanket. But cold weather is terrible. Winter is my least favorite season. I used to enjoy winter back when I was in high school and wasn't responsible for getting myself anywhere or buying milk and toilet paper. A snow day meant something back then; now it just means a quiet day at work because schools are closed. And that I have to add ten minutes to my leaving time so I can clean off my car.

My company is closed Christmas Eve through New Year's Day and last year I made the mistake of not taking the rest of the week off after New Year's Day. I'd like to pretend that I accomplished a lot of things in those quiet days after the holiday but I would be lying. So this year, I took the rest of the week off. I spent most of my vacation doing family stuff and cleaning and reorganizing my apartment. I decided that I'd spend my last day of vacation playing tourist in DC and bringing back DC Days.

Of course I did pick the day after the first snow of 2014 and the coldest day of the winter so far. I dressed properly: layers, boots, hat (I know I never wear hats), and two pairs of gloves (one for cleaning off the car, one for being out and about). I set off with three destinations in mind: National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery of Art. These are three of my favorite museums in DC (the Freer is my fourth favorite) and I haven't been to any of them in over a year. What is wrong with me? I spend a lot of time at the museum I where I volunteer but not as much time at the others I love. This needs to change this year.

My plan for the day:
When my family first moved to the area, I was in the 7th grade. We had a lot of visitors in the first few years we lived here (as was the case whenever we moved someplace new) so I've been to the majority of monuments, historic homes, and museums in the area. I enjoyed playing tour guide for our out of town visitors (except Air & Space - too crowded although it's a great museum). Back then, my favorite museum was American History. I loved the entire museum and remember the opening of the gowns exhibit (First Ladies) and seeing the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit for the first time.

I have to admit, it's not my favorite anymore. It's not that I don't like the museum and that the exhibits aren't interesting it's that it's not a very inviting place to visit. It seems sort of austere and not particularly exciting. Now once you get past the entrance, it's not terrible but it's still not great. I think the museum struggles with how to deal with being "America's attic" which I understand. How do you display the history of this country and appeal to the wide audience that comes through every year? I don't really have the answer for that. I guess I just don't like the new design of the museum.

I did, however, enjoy the expanded culinary exhibit, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000. Julia Child's kitchen went on display in 2004 (and it was supposed to be temporary) but was wildly popular. The exhibit featured her kitchen, from the KitchenAid stand mixer to the famous wall of pots and pans that her husband, Paul, designed for her. Her Garland stove is in one corner and a small bookcase of cookbooks and tapes of her shows are in the other. The original exhibit closed temporarily to make way for an expanded exhibit that builds on Julia Child's contribution to the food landscape in a America but also looks at other movements and important moments in transforming the way we eat. It's a great exhibit and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys food so you know, everyone.

Everything from the invention of the microwave to the Slow Food movement to wine making is in the exhibit. The museum's website also features an assortment of blogs and a nice interactive section on the exhibit.

After visiting the FOOD exhibit, I did a quick walk through of some of the exhibit cases on the first floor of the museum. I wish the Girl Scout exhibit wasn't so hidden and the puppets seemed a little random. The museum does a great job with exhibits like FOOD and some of the other permanent and special exhibits (the Motown one a few years ago, the Presidency) but everything else just feels like a Social Studies fair. I bundled back up and made my way next stop, Natural History.

You know what's terrible about a snow day? Taking layers of clothing on and off as you go in and out of buildings. Temperatures were in the negative digits yesterday so I wore layers so I wouldn't freeze but the layers only make you hot once you're in a building. Every time I walked into a new museum, I had to peel off the top layer and then spend time adjusting to the new extreme temperature - museum heat. Museums can't be too hot because of the way heat can damage many artifacts and pieces but if you add normal winter heating to the mass of humanity in the museum, it's not pleasant. There were actually more people out yesterday than I expected (and I'm glad they were there). I'm sure I was a sweaty mess at least once during the trip. I just can't win.

I didn't always love the Natural History museum but now I do. The dinosaurs are my favorite part of the museum (because I'm an 8 year old boy) and I also enjoy the Atrium Cafe. Museum cafes are notoriously expensive but I've always felt that the Smithsonian cafes were at least worth it. The cupcakes are outstanding. Whhen I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian, this was the museum where our training was held. There's a wildly outdated computer lab in the staff only section of the museum. Anyway, during that training I spent my breaks wandering around the museum (mostly the dinosaurs and the gems). I think this is when Natural History made it to my list of favorites.

As I was walking through the dinosaur exhibit, I overheard a brother and sister talking. The boy was around 7 or 8 and the girl was probably 12. The boy pointed at one of the fossil displays and asked, "What dinosaur is that?" The girl replied, "I don't know. Let's go read and find out." I was so proud of them and saw them a few more times reading about the different fossil displays as I walked around the exhibit hall. They were so engrossed in what they were doing. This is what I love about museums.

I didn't venture to the gems because I'm pretty sure every single person who wasn't looking at the dinosaurs was there. One day, I'll figure out the right day and time to go to the gem exhibit without feeling like I'm at a crowded sporting event. I took a picture of Henry, the African elephant that's in the Rotunda. Everyone loves Henry.

My last stop of the day was the National Gallery of Art. I also walked through the Sculpture Garden since it's on the way. It's rather pretty covered in snow. There's also the ice skating rink; I skipped this as I figured it wouldn't be a great idea to ice skate alone. I'd probably break something.

I love listening to people talk about the Sculpture Garden. The metal tree, Graft, always gets them. Some people think it's funny, others odd. It's fun to listen to people's first reactions to art. I experience this at the museum where I volunteer.

The last time I went to the National Gallery of Art it was to see a photography exhibit too. Special photography exhibits are always in the same terrible gallery in the west wing of the museum. The main part of the gallery is fine; you can view the photographs and not bump into people or have to wait if people are discussing the image or reading slowly. The problem is with the entrance and exit to the space. They're both narrow and ideally you'd view the photographs on either side of the entrance (or exit) but it's impossible. The space is too small and everyone stands and discusses the piece. So I always have to circle back and do the entrance twice and then go through the rest of the exhibit and then see the exit twice. People probably think I'm being disruptive but there's not real flow to any of the exhibits I've seen in the space.

I was there to see the Marville photographs of Paris. Charles Marville photographed the transition from Old Paris to New Paris in the late 19th century. The architect of New Paris, Baron Haussmann, wanted the transition documented so many of the photographs in the exhibit are just that. Marville captured the construction of the Paris Opera and also the destruction of the old streets and neighborhoods as progress moved throughout the city. I learned a new word ("Haussmannization": The creative destruction of something for the betterment of society). It was interesting to see some of the sights of Paris as they were before compared to what I saw when I was there this summer. There were several photos of the Opera and Notre Dame that I could actually identify and others that were probably of places that no longer exist in Paris. The exhibit closes on January 5 so go today if you want to see if for yourself.

I walked over to the East Building as well. That side of the building is closed for renovation but you can still see the Calder mobiles and Leo Villareal's light sculpture, Multiverse. I didn't know much about the light sculpture before this visit. If you sit on either side of the walkway and watch it, you'll start to notice the patterns and the pace of the light change. I did just that as I enjoyed a coffee at the cafe. The lights are mesmerizing. Villareal is the artist that's work lit the Bay Bridge in Oakland a few years ago.

I finished my day with a very cold walk back to the Metro. I took a few more pictures of the Mall and tried to keep my face from freezing. I was glad I braved the cold to spend some time at my favorite places along the Mall. It was nice to see that so many other people had the same idea as me. I will probably never love winter the way I do fall and spring but I understand it's charm. And I understand that you should never waste a snow day.

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