In Washington, DC, the four walls of museums offer an insight into the history, arts and culture of the US. While many of these museums, most of the Smithsonian Institution, have existed for decades, several new ones have come up to document the histories of people on the margins.
At the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, which holds one of the largest collections in the world, one can spend hours exploring the “American experience” through works of popular artists Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, among others. But what truly defines American art is the gallery dedicated to folk and self-taught modern artists, like Emery Blagdon, who came from a small farm in Nebraska, or Bessie Harvey, a mother of 11, who used branches and roots to make her sculpture, Birthing (1986), portraying an African girl giving birth to a baby.
The museum, once the Patent Office, shares the building with the National Portrait Gallery. Here, special signage leads you to the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama (by Amy Sherald, 2018) that has become very popular with visitors. The portrait of writer Toni Morrison, who died this year, draws huge crowds. Not too far from Sackler Gallery, that houses Asian art, is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which houses modern and contemporary art. The National Museum of Women in the Arts focuses on the female gaze.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture documents the stories of the people from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, along with the journey from jazz to hip-hop. The museum also evokes interest as it is visibly different from other Smithsonian buildings. Opened in 2016, its exterior, conceived by Ghana-born architect David Adjaye, is made up of a three-tiered, bronze-coloured screen, and the lattice is a tribute to the intricate ironwork forged by enslaved African-Americans in the southern US. Then, there is the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which documents the tragedy through artefacts, photographs and films.
At the centre of the National Mall is the National Museum of Natural History. Here, one hall is dedicated to gems, minerals and geology, and another room showcases the centuries-old fossils. There is also a laboratory for scientific discoveries. The exhibit titled Deep Time, illustrates how Earth’s history has played out over billions of years. Tucked away somewhere is an insect zoo and an ocean hall, which has an exact replica of a living North Atlantic right whale.
Also on the Mall premises is the National Air and Space Museum which includes the original Wright Flyer; the Bell XS-1 that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier for the first time; the Apollo 11 command module, and a sample of lunar rock. At the L’Enfant Plaza stands the brand new International Spy Museum, which houses a huge collection of spy artefacts and first-person accounts from top intelligence officers and experts. Here, there is a section devoted to Indian-origin spy Noor Inayat Khan, who trained as a radio operator with Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II.