The presence of the Smithsonian might be my favorite part about living here in DC. The Smithsonian includes 19 museums, galleries, gardens and the zoo. Nineteen! And none of them have an admission fee! I have been gleefully working my way through all of these sites—so far, we’ve checked out the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Zoo (twice now), the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian, and this past weekend we hit up the zoo for a third time and made a trip to the Museum of American History, one I had been eager to attend.
But first, the zoo. My parents and grandparents were visiting, and the main reason for our visit to the zoo was to see Moke, the new baby gorilla who was born just a few weeks ago. Moke had already been born and was in the exhibit the last time we went to the zoo a couple weeks ago, but when we arrived at the Ape House to see him, he and his mother were asleep in the corner and we couldn’t get a good look—plus it was a Saturday and the exhibit was packed with people. Fortunately, when we went last Friday afternoon, neither of those proved to be the case. There were just a few people pressed against the glass, and Moke’s mother, Calaya, generously gave us a look at her sweet baby.
Because of our evolutionary proximity, it is always a little eerie to see gorillas, their mannerisms and how they interact. But seeing Calaya with Moke, the way she gazed lovingly into his eyes and cradled him in her arms, really drove the point home. I mean, look at the photo I took of the pair compared to this photo of a painting I happened to see in the American History museum the following day:
They’re the same! It’s wild, I know. We also made quick visits to the Small Mammal House, the pandas and the elephants. The zoo just got a new male elephant about 5 weeks ago, and we found him in the yard using his trunk to strip the outer layer off of a large piece of bamboo. Then we watched him lift up one end of the tree trunk, so the other end was still on the ground, and break it in half as if it were a twig, which was pretty incredible to watch. A fun addendum: I saw on the news yesterday that this male has now mated with one of the female elephants at the zoo, and if it was successful, they can expect to welcome a baby elephant in 22 months! Elephants have a super long gestation period. But still, very exciting.
Our other Smithsonian adventure of the weekend was to the American History Museum. This was one I had been looking forward to for a while, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. But after just a few minutes in the museum, I realized exactly what it was. Yes, all museums serve the purpose of allowing you to feel closer to history in hopes of helping you understand it. However, even when the primitive tools are in a case in front of you, it can be difficult to imagine the people who used them thousands of years ago. In contrast, everything at the American History Museum feels distinctly relatable. Now, it certainly helped that I was there with my grandparents, and my grandmother pointed out quite a few things, one of the first microwaves among them, that she actually had in her home. But even if she hadn’t been there, there were countless items that I recognized and have some sort of personal relationship with. There is a massive innovation exhibit; these are a couple of the things that were in there:
The above case I thought was quite fascinating and also just amusing. It was filled with bottles of things labeled “female bitters.” I have a mild fascination with tinctures and things like this that people used to believe could improve their health or help them lose weight or what have you, so these were pretty funny.
Another exhibit at the museum was all about food, specifically the growth of food and cooking in the US. There was a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen and many of her pots and pans, as well as smaller exhibits on the different ways that Americans eat and how that differs from the rest of the world. For example, there was a whole section on snacking, one on Mexican food, and this one on the backyard cookout:
The basic idea here was that the cookout evolved as a response to wartime. When men returned home, they wanted to turn meals into a time in which they could relax in the fresh air and enjoy time spent with their family, and the cookout was born. And I would have been remiss if I didn’t take a photo of this in the Mexican food section:
Margaritas were being made before this machine was invented, but it utilized the technology that was being used to make slushies to give the margaritas a smoother texture. The last part of the food exhibit that stuck out to me was the section on wine-making in America, specifically how much younger the art is than it is in Europe, primarily because of prohibition. And I have to thank Jeff for calling me over to the panel that discussed the invention of my forever favorite wine, white zinfandel. Yes, I know it is super sweet and cheap; it’s still delicious.
Now, this museum is enormous. We were there for close to 4 hours, and we probably did half the museum. We will have to go back and spend another day roaming through the other exhibits. I did a quick jaunt through the exhibit on transportation, which might not sound particularly exciting but definitely merits a closer look. And the last exhibit we looked at was the First Ladies, one of the few that I knew going in was part of this museum and that I had wanted to see.
As I mentioned earlier, even when you see clothes in a museum, and the plaque tells you they were worn by this group of people during this time period, it can be difficult to visualize that and relate to it. The First Ladies exhibit includes the dresses worn by almost all of the first ladies to their husbands’ inaugurations, or for some of the older ones, to specific state events. These details really anchored the exhibit to a specific day and time in history, which was pretty cool. It was also fascinating to see the evolution of fashion over the years, and fashion isn’t even something I’m particularly interested in. This exhibit was quite full so it was difficult to take pictures, but I think my favorite of the inauguration gowns was Hillary Clinton’s.
If you are someone who tends to find museums boring or finds it difficult to relate to the objects and artifacts you are seeing, this museum will completely turn the table on you. And I can’t wait to go back and finish it up.