Museums—Why Are They Worth a Visit?
THE capital city of the United States, Washington, D.C., is a magnet for tourists. * What brings them here? One of the main attractions is the White House, the president’s official residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This landmark draws more than one and a half million visitors each year. They are allowed to wander through certain rooms that are decorated in period styles. The rooms are furnished with valuable antique furniture in addition to antique china and silverware.
Another impressive edifice is the Capitol, the center of government for this country of nearly 300 million people. As you walk through its halls and corridors, you will see statues of famous leaders of the past. If you stay alert, you might also glimpse some famous senator or congressman. But not all tourists are attracted to these buildings. Many are drawn by the centers of culture to be found in this city—the museums and art galleries.
There are so many museums and galleries in Washington, D.C., that it would be impossible to cover them all, and it would require a very long stay in Washington to visit them. Let us see how many we can explore in a visit of just a few days.
A Museum of Museums
Without a doubt, the preeminent center of interest for visitors is the Smithsonian Institution. Why? Because it is not merely one museum—it is a whole collection of museums and centers of knowledge. The Smithsonian Castle is easy to pick out on the National Mall—the mile-long [1.5 km] green swath with the Capitol at one end and the Washington Monument at the other. The castle is the colorful red sandstone building that rears into view on the left side of the famous mall as you face the Washington Monument obelisk.
Which is the most popular of the Smithsonian facilities? In our age of science, it is the National Air and Space Museum—according to one travel guide, “the most visited museum in the world.” Why is it so popular? It has 23 extensive galleries, and its exhibits, many hanging from the ceiling, illustrate the exciting history of flight. The vast Milestones of Flight gallery even has the Flyer on display, the very airplane that Orville Wright used for his historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Nearby is Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the plane he had arranged to have specially built in order to win the prize for the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. And, of course, there are modern exhibits of history-making spacecraft as well as rocks brought back from the moon.
Does Money Attract You?
Just south of the mall, and walking distance from the Washington Memorial, is a building that draws thousands of curious citizens, who are probably carrying samples of the products that emanate from this place—bank notes! It is the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The 40-minute tour displays the process of engraving and printing that is necessary to manufacture the dollar bills that people use in their daily transactions. Over $140 billion worth of money is printed here each year! Is the special paper that is used a State secret? How long does a dollar bill last in circulation? What steps are taken to frustrate counterfeiters? These and many other questions are answered on this tour.
Next-door to the Bureau is a unique building, opened in 1993, which draws visitors from all over the world. It is the sobering U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A Museum Dedicated to Mass Murder and Survival
The name Holocaust comes from a Greek word used in the Bible that means a complete burnt offering. (Hebrews 10:6) However, in relation to this museum, “the Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.” Jews were the primary victims, but the State policy also sought to eliminate Roma and Sinti (two gypsy tribes), the disabled, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political dissidents.
The first impression you get as you walk into the building is hardly that of a warm welcome. Nazi concentration camps were designed to intimidate. The museum echoes that feeling. What you see around you is a towering, cold, impersonal steel-and-brick industrial structure. From the Hall of Witness on the first floor, you can see up to the steel-and-glass roof over the third floor. The view through the skylight, as described in an official brochure, “is warped, deformed, and eccentrically pitched.” The architect set out to create an atmosphere in which the visitor feels that “something is amiss here.”
The museum has five floors, but the main touring area for the public extends from the fourth floor down to the second, and it is suggested that you start your tour on the fourth floor. The tour is self-guided and can last two to three hours. Because of the graphic images of the hounding and murder of the victims, it is recommended that children under the age of 11 not visit the Permanent Exhibition. On the first floor, there is a separate exhibition for young children, called Daniel’s Story. It gives the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of a child in Nazi Germany.
The elevators to the fourth floor are like cold, grim steel containers. The story starts on this floor and covers the “Nazi Assault”—1933-39. Here you see how Nazi propaganda achieved control of the German population and instilled fear and terror, especially in the hearts of the millions of European Jews. What do you find on the third floor?
This floor has the ominous theme “Final Solution”—1940-45. It “describes the ghettos, deportations, slave labor, and concentration camps, and the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ [elimination of the Jews and others] through instruments of destruction such as mobile killing units and the death camps,” according to the visitors guide.
The second floor has a more positive theme, “Last Chapter.” It explains “rescue, resistance, liberation, and survivors’ efforts to rebuild their lives.” On one side of the floor is the Wexner Learning Center, which includes something of great interest to many of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At computer terminals the visitor can access histories of some of the Witnesses who suffered and, in some cases, paid with their lives.
For example, you can trace the heroic account of Helene Gotthold, from Dortmund, Germany. The mother of two children, she insisted on attending Christian meetings in spite of a Nazi ban. She was executed by guillotine in December 1944. Many more histories of victims and martyrs of the concentration camp era can also be viewed.
On this floor too is the remarkable Tower of Life (also known as the Tower of Faces), which rises up through three floors. It is a collection of hundreds of photographs of the Jewish inhabitants of Eishyshok, now known as Eisiskes, a small town in what is now Lithuania. The photographs were taken between 1890 and 1941. It was a Jewish community that flourished for 900 years. Then in 1941 a mobile SS killing squad (Einsatzkommando) massacred the whole Jewish population in just two days! According to official Nazi records, 3,446 Jews were eliminated—989 males, 1,636 females, and 821 children. The Nazi bureaucracy was very thorough.
Also on the second floor is the Hall of Remembrance, which has Bible texts, such as Deuteronomy 30:19 and Genesis 4:9, 10, inscribed on the marble walls. Included are several evidences of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as the purple triangle they had to wear as an identifying badge. Keep your eyes open to pick them out as you take your tour. There are many more features of the museum that are worthy of investigation, including the huge research facility on the fifth floor.
When you leave the museum and get back out on the street, you will breathe a sigh of relief. But now let us move on to the newest of Washington’s museums, one that covers a different kind of history that also includes attempted genocide.
The Most American of the Museums
This latest in the Smithsonian collection of museums commemorates the early inhabitants of the Americas—the more than 500 Native American tribes that occupied this land before Europeans or Africans ever set foot here. It is the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), located on the National Mall, next to the Air and Space Museum. It was inaugurated on September 21, 2004. The museum is easily identified by its unique curvilinear design. The 250,000-square-foot [23,000 sq m] building has an exterior covering of Kasota limestone from Minnesota. It gives the appearance of “a stratified stone mass that has been carved by wind and water.”
What can you expect to find in it? The five major inaugural exhibitions “feature approximately 7,000 objects from the world-renowned NMAI collection of some 800,000 ethnographic and archaeological objects.” (Insight, the Smithsonian newsletter) There are baskets, pottery, and beadwork representing tribes as far apart as the Mapuche in Chile, the Quechua in Peru, the Lakota in the United States, and the Anishinabe in Canada.
In the words of W. Richard West, Jr., who is Southern Cheyenne and the founding director of the museum, its purpose is to “correct misconceptions and help bring about a better understanding of the lives and cultures of the Native peoples of this hemisphere by all peoples, Native and non-Native alike.” It takes about two hours to visit this American Indian collection. Where can we go next in our rapid tour of Washington’s many exhibitions?
Art Down Through the Centuries
Let us just walk across the mall to the magnificent National Gallery of Art. The gallery was opened in 1941. The tour will take you through eight centuries of art. If you are an art lover, you had better start a new day here, since, depending on your favorite art era, it is going to take you several hours of walking, staring, and meditating to cover this wonderful collection. Happily, there are plenty of seats if you want to sit and study any particular work or just rest.
As the Catholic Church was the main patron of the arts between the 13th and the 15th centuries, most of the paintings have religious themes. You will find Giotto’s “Madonna and Child,” Raphael’s “The Alba Madonna” (1508), and works by Leonardo da Vinci. For the 16th century, there are works by Tintoretto, Titian, and others. Bible students will be interested in Tintoretto’s “Christ at the Sea of Galilee” (about 1575/1580), which portrays Christ’s disciples in a storm-tossed fishing boat. Another Biblical reference is El Greco’s “Christ Cleansing the Temple.” Compare the very different styles of these artists—note El Greco’s vivid colors and dramatic action.
The 17th-century collection includes works by Rubens and Rembrandt, among others. Bible students will again be fascinated by Rubens’ depiction of “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” painted about 1615. Notice Daniel’s calm as he thanks God for preserving him alive. Now let us take a leap in time to the 19th century and the French Impressionists.
This is one of the best Impressionist collections outside of Paris. If one has lived with prints of paintings for years, it is a thrill to come face-to-face with an original. Famous works by Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Monet will take your breath away as you study their styles and their interpretation of light. Also featured are some outstanding works of such American artists as Mary Cassatt (“Children Playing on a Beach”), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (“The White Girl”), and Winslow Homer (“Breezing Up”).
There is one more exhibition you might want to visit, the East Building, with its collection of modern and contemporary art. In the courtyard, it includes some large sculptures by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and others. You will also find a tapestry by the Catalonian artist Joan Miró.
As you can see, the National Gallery will keep you occupied for hours or at least as long as your energy lasts. Of course, there are more art galleries to visit, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which has a fine collection of European and American masters, including Impressionist paintings by Monet and Renoir. It also has the largest collection of works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot outside France. How much time and energy do you have available? That will determine how many more galleries you are able to visit.
But you will come away from Washington with an enhanced appreciation for culture. And maybe you will better understand French author Destouches’ expression, “Criticism is easy, art is difficult.” Your visit might also encourage you to tour the museums and galleries that you have in the area where you live. Check them out, and see to what extent religion and the Bible have influenced them.
^ par. 2 Why “D.C.” (District of Columbia)? Because the capital does not belong to any state but occupies a federal land area of 68 square miles [177 sq km]. The “D.C.” also distinguishes it from the state of Washington, on the West Coast, some 2,000 miles [3,000 km] away.
[Picture on page 14]
The Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian photo by Eric Long
[Pictures on page 14, 15]
The National Air and Space Museum contains the original “Flyer” from 1903 (at right) and Lindbergh’s “Spirit of Saint Louis” (below)
[Pictures on page 15]
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing attracts many visitors
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The Tower of Life rises up through three floors
[Picture on page 16]
A concentration camp uniform worn by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses
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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[Picture on page 17]
USHMM, courtesy of Martin Tillmans
[Picture on page 18]
The National Museum of the American Indian has a unique curvilinear design
Photo by Robert C. Lautman
[Picture on page 18]
A blown-glass vase by a modern American Indian artist
Photo by Ernest Amoroso, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian
[Picture on page 18]
Winslow Homer’s “Breezing Up,” in the National Gallery of Art
Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), Gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation, Image © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington
[Picture Credit Lines on page 15]
Top: Background: Smithsonian photo by Dane Penland; plane: © Mark Polott/Index Stock Imagery; tour: Photo by Carolyn Russo/NASM; bottom three photos: Courtesy of the Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Engraving and Printing