A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.

Dead and Unburied: Museums in London

After a couple of nights and days spent with locals, and keeping the touristic activities to a minimum, I thought it best to start seeing at least some of the real touristic attractions London had to offer. I was going to be around for a couple of weeks, so I definitely had the time, and London really did have a lot to offer in the way of sights and attractions. It had been a while since I had been to any museums – I’d almost been avoiding them ever since my visit to the Vatican – but from what I had gathered there were definitely a few in London that were definitely worth taking a look. Many of them were also free, which was almost always a big deciding factor as to whether I would bother visiting something that I was only half sure I might really enjoy. But growing up I had always been a massive dinosaur nerd, so there was no way that I could pass up the opportunity to see the Natural History Museum and its collection of fossilised skeletons. What I had failed to anticipate, however, was that such attractions are also really popular among children, and what I had failed to learn before I arrived at the museum was that it was currently school holidays. Yes, the line to get into the museum that morning was probably twice as long as the diplodocus skeleton that I knew was waiting for me inside the main hall of the Natural History Museum, just out of sight. It snaked around the various courtyards and around the edge of the outside park like a fat snake that had eaten a bunch of screaming, squirming and misbehaving children. And there I was, stuck in the middle of it.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Thankfully I had my book to keep me entertained, because the wait was easily over an hour, possibly getting very close to two. I stopped looking at my watch after a while because it was simply too frustrating. Even my training as a sociologist and my love for participant observation and people watching failed to ease the painful wait – there’s only so many dumb things children say or do, or family arguments you can eavesdrop in before it all just becomes a monotonous blur. Several times I considered bailing and coming back when the line was shorter, but then I had no idea if the line would ever be shorter, and I’d come this far already that I was determined to hang in there. It felt like a bit of a surreal dream when I finally reached the front of the line, but when I did there was a quick security search before I was ushered in through the front doors and into the main hall of the museum.

Where I was greeted by another line. I nearly screamed, until I realised it was just a line to get into one of the attraction rooms. Of course, it was the main dinosaur room, but I decided I would come back to tackle that one later – I’d had quite enough of lining up for the time being. So I wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at exhibits and learning about all sorts of natural phenomena. I surprised myself with realising how much I actually already knew about a lot of stuff… then was probably less surprised when I remember that a lot of the stuff in the museum was aimed for children. There were halls and halls of taxidermy animals – or authentic looking replicas, I’m not 100% sure – which were also interesting to look through, as well as a bunch of fossilised of creatures which I guess weren’t cool enough, or born in the wrong era or whatever, to be included into the real dinosaur exhibit. Though considering there was no line to see these ones, I wasn’t complaining.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

The museum has extensive collections of birds, reptiles and insects, as well as scores of invertebrates, but it was the rooms dedicated to the mammals that definitely had the most to offer. They had models of species great and small from all over the continents of the world, as well as the worlds oceans. Suspended from the ceiling was basically every type of whale or marine mammal under the sun, hanging motionless in the cavernous walls of the museum.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

Narwhale!

Narwhale!

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

But after I’d exhausted just about every other possibility, it was time to head to the dinosaurs. The line to get into the exhibit room was shorter than it had been earlier in the morning, but there was still a line. The room itself was littered with information and interactive activities and games, which I took way too much pride in beating all the little children at, but there was still a long line that passed over the whole exhibit on a suspended bridge. It seems you couldn’t get down to the rest of the exhibit until you’d lined up to see a special surprise of some sort. The line was long but it shuffled along at a moderate pace. As I waited, I passed by a vast collection of fossilised skeletons, and I stopped to take photos of my favourite ones and the best ones, reliving my nerdy childhood and my love for Jurassic Park.

Stegosaurus.

Stegosaurus.

Triceratops.

Triceratops.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

Finally I was at the front of the line, and I got to see what we had all been waiting for. Around the corner in a dimly lit room, we discovered a tyrannosaurus rex. Not a fossilised, inanimate skeleton, but a fully fleshed and very active dinosaur. Well, it wasn’t flesh, but it was a very lifelike robotic model, sniffing and stomping and moving about, opening its jaws to let out screams. It was pretty cool, but I found myself thinking that overall it was rather gimmicky. As I child I probably would have loved it, and I suppose it is there to either frighten or impress the younger children, but I realised that I’d been more interested in looking at the actual fossilised bones of real dinosaurs. It was also at that point that I realised I had never stopped being a dinosaur nerd.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, life-like replica that we waited for so long to see.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, lifelike replica that we waited for so long to see.

After that I was beginning to feel a little bit of museum fatigue, so I headed outside to leave. To my horror, there was absolutely no line and there were people walking in and out freely. I made a point to remember that for my next museum visit, mornings probably weren’t the best time to visit, and from the Natural History Museum I strolled through the overcast streets of London all the way to Hyde Park, where I wandered through the paths and over to the nearby Wellington Arch for a photograph.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

***

Following the idea that mornings weren’t the best time to visit museums if you wanted to avoid lines, I decided to make my way to the British Museum, another free museum that had a range of artefacts from all over the world, most notably the Rosetta Stone. I wandered throughout the museum, twisting and turning through the confusing maze of a floor plan, with no real direction or intense burning desire to see anything. It was an overcast afternoon that was threatening to rain, so it was really the perfect time to be inside in a museum. However, I suppose the reason that a lot of people choose to visit museums in the morning is that by the afternoon, many of us lack the concentration or patience to wander around looking at ancient relics for too long a period of time. I’m not exempt from this, and I probably spent a significantly shorter amount of time in the British Museum (although morning or afternoon – rain, hail or shine – I’m never one for spending hours upon hours at these kinds of places anyway). Still, I did enjoy my time there looking at the relics, from the beautiful to the interesting to the rather macabre.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Sea shell tea set.

Sea shell tea set.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

The British Museum was the final stop of my day of museums. There’s only so much of that stuff I can take in a day, and considering all these places also involved a significant amount of travel between each one, I’d grown rather exhausted. I’d known that there was a lot to see and do in London, but it turns out that that was jut because London happened to be such a big place. I often misjudged what I thought to be walking distances and found myself on significantly hefty treks across the city. I’d get the hang of it eventually, but for now for the museums I was over and out.