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Apr 19, 2011
A View From Capitol Hill

My wife and I just got back from a week in Washington, DC.  If you haven’t been there, it is a museum wonderland.  I was surprised by what I thought I would love, and what I wouldn’t.  I’ve been there several times, so I must admit, I had some preconceived ideas.

The National Gallery

Ginevra de' Benci by da Vinci

Ginevra de Benci by da Vinci

This is actually two museums.  The east and west wings.  Both enormous, both spectacular, one classical, the other modern and contemporary (with a few exceptions on both sides).  Give yourself plenty of time, and plenty of breaks.  A whole day is not enough, nor could you keep your concentration that long.  They had their prize piece out when I was there – da Vinci’s “Genevra de’ Benci”  I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – through a 2 inch sheet of acrylic with tourists pushing me out of the way after two seconds.  But in the National Gallery, I could linger over this masterpiece.  To put it simply, if this was all I saw, it would have been worth the trip.  Magnificent.
Here are a few more recommendations:

The National Portrait Gallery

The contemporary part of this museum was not at all interesting (to me).  But the paintings of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, etc. are impressive and fascinating.  One really gets a sense of our nation’s history from the men that formed it.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

It shares the same building with the National Portrait Gallery, so you can’t help but see both.  The Smithsonian is a large group of museums throughout Washington.  They don’t disappoint.  The American Art Museum is an encyclopedia of American art covering sculpture, painting, pottery, jewelry, etc.  And the art is great.  But what you might miss is the upstairs.  It is called open storage.  It is two floors of densely displayed art.  Rather than hide their collection in the basement (like most museums), they show it in narrow display walls tightly hung.  There are some real jewels there.  Also, don’t forget to open the drawers.  Yes, dozens and dozens of drawers full of miniature paintings, jewelry, and small objects.  Don’t get any funny ideas, all the work is protected by a thick layer of acrylic.  And one final must see: the restoration labs in the back where you can watch the conservators repairing damaged art and frames.  Fascinating.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Also part of the Smithsonian group of museums.  For the most part this is a modern and contemporary museum.  The painting are great examples of these artists.  But my favorite is the sculpture – inside and out.  The sculpture is easy to find inside and surrounding the museum, but don’t forget the sculpture garden just to the north (inside the mall).  Calder, Rodin, Smith, Moore, Morini, and more, much more.

The Sackler Gallery

This was one of those pleasant surprises on my trip.  From ground level it looks like an attractive limestone building.  Not very big or intimidating.  But when you walk in, the museum descends into a world of art, 3 or 4 stories – down.  Truly one of the most beautiful buildings and presentations in a city of beautiful museums.  It is primarily ancient Asian art.   If that is not your love, go anyway, just to see the building – magnificent.

The National Gallery Sculpture Garden

If you are hopping from one museum to the next, you might miss this jewel.  Near, but not quite in front of the National Gallery is this wonderland of modern sculpture.  Bring your lunch and linger – fantastic.

Other stuff, not quite art

The Folger Shakespeare Library – world’s largest collection of Shakespeare material (England – eat your heart out), and yes they do plays in their theater.
The Capitol – There are some amazing paintings and sculpture in here.  It is a busy place, so look carefully.  Did you know: on the Senate side there is a bust of every vice-president since John Adams (yes, even the ones you don’t like).  And every state has two statues of their most important figures throughout the building
The Botanic Gardens – well not art at all.  But it is good to get some oxygen and enjoy nature out of context.
I know there are a lot of museums I missed – but that gives me plenty of reasons to go back.
Jay Magidson, Basalt, April, 2011

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