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US East Coast 2018: All Things Bright & Beautiful

April 14, 2019

After 3 hours of driving, we arrived at our final destination for the trip, the capital city of Washington D.C. We were all ready to explore one of the major highlights of the city – the Smithsonian Institution, which in DC alone comprises 17 museums, galleries and a zoo. Entrance to the Institution is free, and we learnt this was because of a generous donation almost 200 years ago by British scientist, James Smithson, who donated his entire estate to create an establishment for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”.

An amazing collection of natural treasures await us at the Smithsonian. Pictured here is a dinosaur exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

National Museum of Natural History

We left early the next morning. We were so thrilled to be in DC, especially after enjoying a sunset view of the Washington Monument at the horizon the previous day. However, we didn’t realise just how overwhelming the city can be, after almost four weeks in the countryside amidst mountains and peaceful pastoral scenes.

We made some errors getting into the National Mall area, the heart of the political and cultural district in Washington DC, where we were headed to visit the National Museum of Natural History, part of the vast complex of Smithsonian institutions. These included parking in a paid lot instead of the free one offered to us by our Air BnB host, losing two Metro cards on the train, and not stopping for groceries for lunch so we had to hunt for food and pay exorbitant prices for rather average food near the museum. We also had a sensory overload from the crowds and noise, and facing the tired faces and abrupt manner which comes from life in the city brought our moods down significantly. It was a point of reflection for us that as a family, we much prefer a quiet life in the country!

While taking the Washington metro is a relatively easy experience, it was more the transition from country to city life that threw us off course.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and after getting everyone fed, we made it just in time for the tarantula feeding at the Live Insect Zoo. It was quite an experience gathering around to see the Museum staff drop a cricket into the tarantula’s enclosure; however, it turned out to be a fortunate day for the insect as the hairy arthropod was not hungry and probably was getting ready to moult. The live insect exhibition was one of our highlights, particularly for our little naturalist E who was quivering with excitement as he saw the highly venomous black widow spider for the first time, several tarantula species, and other strange and marvellous creatures such as honeypot ants with their bellies swollen with honey, and giant stick insects.

Up close and personal with a tarantula spider.
The Butterfly Pavilion is an amazing oasis for butterflies to roam freely and our little naturalist was clearly in his element.

There were also the must-see exhibits like the infamous Hope Diamond. It was cool to see the subject of such contention and to recall the royal hands it had passed through, from France to England and then to the United States. The boys particularly enjoyed the special exhibition Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World, where they explored different kinds of viruses and bacteria and how they are transmitted. We got a chance to speak with two volunteers, one of whom is a scientist at a lab whose focus is on finding mutations of viruses, and the other, a NASA scientist who gathers precipitation data using satellite information and links it to water borne diseases.

The infamous Hope Diamond, once sold to the French King Louis XIV, it was later stolen and ended up in the US where it was eventually given to the National Museum of National History.

Learning from two scientists how viruses look like.

 

It was rather amazing that despite our tiredness and fatigue, we managed to trudge on to the White House after dinner for some photos and ended up at the Washington Monument, where we decided to end our day, grateful to head back to our cosy accommodation in Silver Springs.


National Museum of African American History and Culture

After lunch the next day, we headed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We had about 2/1/2 hours there, and within that time we only got to see one portion of the museum – the history section; but that was poignant for us in and of itself. The exhibition traced the journey of African Americans from slavery in Europe and America, through the revolutionary and civil wars, and finally to the civil rights movement and current day; and was an emotive and immersive experience.

 

Shackles that were once used to contain children. Truly a symbol of a different society with completely different values.

Symbols of hate. The mask was worn by the infamous Ku Klux Klan, responsible for the lynching of many African Americans.
Just to see the actual shackles made to contain a child caused one to question how such practices could have been real. But for me, the most emotive exhibit was the casket of Emmett Till. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett was accused of whistling at a white woman. He was subsequently kidnapped, beaten and shot in the head boy the woman’s husband and his half-brother. They were arrested but acquitted by an all-white jury. Emmett’s mother Mamie, made the painful decision to allow an open-casket viewing to show the public exactly how her son died. This was a pivotal event which galvanised the civil rights movement. Personally, just walking into the room with the actual casket, and listening to audio voices re-enacting what happened, and reading about Mamie’s ordeal was enough to cause an emotional experience. Those really were the darkest days in America’s history, when lynching was the order of the day and life was unbearable for you as long as your skin colour was not white.
Powerful exhibits to bring to life the history of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Ruby Bridges. The boys’ children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges comes alive as we remember the 6-year-old girl, who in 1960, insisted on attending a previously all-white school against tremendous societal pressure. She truly is a hero of her time.
National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

 

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is conveniently located near the Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, our exit point. The boys enjoyed their brief but delightful time at the museum, enjoying the guns, missies and other weaponry displayed. It was truly spectacular to see such a large display of aircraft displayed from the ceiling as well as on the hangar floor.

Never a dull moment. The boys trying to escape from the attack helicopter.

Personally, it was a most poignant experience to see the Enola Gay. This was the bomber used by the Americans for the release of the first atomic bomb on Japan on 6 August 1945 during World War Two. The Hiroshima bomb, followed by another strike against Nagasaki three days later, has been described as a major reason that contributed to the surrender of the Japanese. It was particularly poignant to come face-to-face with a weapon that has the power to wield so much destruction.

This Sikorsky JRS-1 seaplane was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 Dec 1941, the day the Japanese attacked. Following the attack, the unarmed utility craft was used to seek out the Japanese fleet.

It is hard to imagine that the bomber behind me was responsible for the release of the most powerful weapon of its time – the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy”. The Enola Gay was initially scheduled to take part in the second atomic attack against the city of Kokura, but due to weather conditions, another city, Nagasaki became the second target. 
Besides the Enola Gay, there were also a number of interesting exhibits such as the cool Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, used during the Cold War as a spy plane, and the Space Shuttle Discovery, which brought back fond memories of our time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It was unfortunate that we were only able to visit 3 of the 17 museums during our short three days in the US capital. But considering the depth of knowledge that can be found within these walls, I am thankful that we got to experience what we did!
 
The Previous Page – O Shenandoah How I Love You. Read here.

What’s Next? – Sunset in Washington. Read here.

From the Beginning – Start reading the record pages of our US East Coast Travel Adventure here.
 

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