Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Museum of American History

After our tour of the White House, we wandered along the Mall and decided to visit the National Museum of American History which is one of the 90 museums which make up the Smithsonian. We had not visited it on our previous trip and as we wandered in we found a tour about to begin of the highlights so quickly attached ourselves to it.

It is a huge building, with three storeys and it recently was redesigned and underwent an $85 million renovation. One enters from the National Mall into a huge light filled central atrium which is a public space for performance and entertainment, with a stunning abstract representation of a waving flag, made up of 960 mirrored panels which sparkle in the light.

It struck me as being a very eclectic museum in many ways but perhaps that is the nature of a tour which hits only the highlights. On the other hand perhaps it is not meant to be a comprehensive museum but give a flavour of what the United States of America has been all about in the past.

Among the things we were shown on this tour were Dorothy's original Ruby Red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, above; a pair of boxing gloves belonging to Muhammad Ali, the most famous heavyweight champion of the world; the hat Lincoln wore to the Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated; the portable writing desk that Thomas Jefferson used to pen the Declaration of Independence; a collection of First Ladies' gowns, a very early Teddy bear.

Well you get the picture. A highlights tour. But perhaps you might be interested in one or two of the items we saw in a little more detail.

We all know that teddy bears are named after Teddy Roosevelt, or more formally Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America. He was also known for his love of hunting and this is the story the docent told us.

In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip in Mississippi. As reported in the Washington Post, the presidential hunting party. trailed and lassoed a lean, black bear, then tied it to a tree. The president was summoned, but when he arrived on the scene he refused to shoot the tied and exhausted bear, considering it to be unsportsmanlike. The next day there was a cartoon in the Washington Post about the incident and a shopkeeper placed in his window two bears made by his wife and called them Teddy's bears. A huge hit, this humble beginning grew into the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company and eventually the name became simply teddy bear.

In our later wanderings we came upon a performance in front of this exhibit, a part of the dining counter from the Greensboro Woolworths store. A young African American held a group of people spellbound as he told them of an incident during the Civil Rights movement. On February 1st 1960, four young black students sat at the whites only dining counter in Woolworths in the town of Greensboro. They were not served, nor were they removed. Each day the protests grew larger until on the fifth day, 300 students arrived to demonstrate. These were not without incident but other towns joined the protests and eventually an impact was made, with Woolworths desegregating the counter several months later.

Julia Child's kitchen

A very popular exhibit in this museum is Julia Child's kitchen from her house and where all her TV shows were filmed. In 2001 Julia donated this 40 year old kitchen to the Smithsonian and while it was very interesting in its own way, the really interesting displays for me were films showing on various TVs in which she talked about some of the various tools in her kitchen, mostly acquired in Europe. One delightful segment talked about knives and what she considered the essential ones were, although she kept adding them and taking them away and laughing all the while. I can't say I ever cared for her on TV although she was mostly popular in the years when we did not have a television set, but these small films taken in her old age were like a delightful visit with a very charming lady. The recent delightful movie, Julie and Julia, had some scenes filmed in the Smithsonian kitchen of Julia Child to add to its authenticity.

I think many believe that the jewel in the crown of this museum is the Star Spangled Banner, a flag which flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour during the war against the British in 1812. This huge flag, originally 30 by 42 feet, with 15 stripes and 15 stars, inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem which eventually became the national anthem of the United States of America. It has undergone various restoration attempts over the years but the latest in 1999 is simply an attempt to conserve what remains of the original, which is now only 30 by 34 feet, and only has 14 stars. It is displayed in a controlled atmosphere room to protect the fragile wool and cotton flag.

There is much else to see of interest in this museum but I'll leave it for you to discover for yourself if you ever go to Washington, DC. I certainly don't feel that I have by any means exhausted that fascinating place, museum freak that I am. My friend, who has been there for almost nine months, is wailing that their stay is almost over and she has so much still left to see.
I'm sure she'll give it her best shot.


Berni said...

Another interesting post. You do get around. When you get home you will probably enjoy putting your feet up for a while.

Janice Thomson said...

Ah, the shoes, the shoes :)
I would definitely enjoy visiting the Smithsonian - any and each part of it but will settle seeing it through your eyes. Excellent informative post JMB.

Carver said...

Very informative and interesting post with great photographs.

lady macleod said...

Oh thank you for the tour. I'm so disappointed that my time in Washington D.C. did not allow me to visit the Smithsonian, for I am also, as you know, a museum-person. I love the ruby slippers! I have not yet seen Julia and Julia but I intend to and will be looking for that kitchen!

When J and I did our theatre-week last year in New York City, he took me to see "Wicked" ( which was brilliant). Totally unrelated and just because I have always loved red shoes - I had the week before bought a pair of Cole Hann Mary Jane red patent leather heels with the kicky ankle strap. I wore them to the show, not really thinking of the coincidence, until while waiting outside the ladies room a young girl pointed at me, tugged at her mother's hand, and said, "Mom look! She has the ruby slippers!" Her eyes were aglow and it made my evening even more spectacular.

jmb said...

Thanks Berni. Yes I love to travel but I love to get home again too.

Janice I know you would love the Smithsonian, so many wonderful things to see in so many totally different museums. Thanks.

Carver, did you ever go to Washington? Put it on your list of things to do if you did not.

I love your red shoe story Lady Mac. I love anything red at all but I have only one pair of red shoes and don't seem to wear them often.

Thanks to everyone for coming by and commenting.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Oh! Say can you see? There's no place like home.. There's no place like home.. There's no place...

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for the interesting tour. I'd love to go there. Love Dorothy's shoes and Julia Child's kitchen.