Washington DC: Museum Edition

Our time in DC pretty much alternated between eating meals with friends and wandering through museums.

Six isn’t the most museums we’ve visited in one city, we went to eight in Berlin, but I can say museums took up a lot of our time in DC. And hey, why not? With most days in the 90s, its no wonder our only outdoor activity was the Lotus and Water Lily Festival at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Our first stop was one I knew very little about. A friend had recently posted photos of her trip to the Hirshhorn Museum on Instagram and I wanted to check it out for myself. The Hirshhorn is a contemporary art gallery and some of my favorite pieces were Max Ernst’s Moonmad sculpture (that I recognized as his work across from across the room, NBD), Enrico David’s untitled wool & acrylic on canvas (they have a whole exhibit of his work titled Gradations of Slow Release), and Mark Bradford’s never ending piece Pickett’s Charge (especially The Thunderous Cannonade).

Another really cool exhibit at the Hirshhorn was Manifest: Art X Agency. One section breaks Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, into 13 short films and plays them simultaneously. A bit of a sensory overload, the space reverberated with Cate Blanchett’s voice as she acts out excerpts from some of the great manifestos of the past century.

My absolute favorite part of the museum has, unfortunately, closed (May 17-July 24, 2019). It was Rirkrit Tiravanija’s who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green. During our visit, the murals were being updated, as they changed over time to showcase not only protests against Thai government policies, but also other historic and current protests.

Later that day we made our way to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This took us WAY longer than expected to get through. First, it was pretty crowded (great that so many people want to experience it, but some crowd control would be nice). Second, there is just so much to read. There are a few artifacts on the lower three levels, but most of the art/memorabilia is upstairs. Having spent the last three years in Ghana, a lot of the lower floors were well-known to us.

Awful (and true) statistics were showcased, such as the fact that of every 100 people seized in Africa, only 64 would survive the march from their homes to the coast; only 57 would still be alive to board the slave ships; and just 48 would be make it to the United States to be sold as slaves. Also, the average lifespan of enslaved Africans on colonial sugar and rice plantations was seven years. If you’re ever in Cape Coast/Elmina, Ghana make sure to check out the museums that have been created in their former slave castles.

New (and also horrific) facts for me were the number of African Americans in political power in the South – after slavery was ended, but before Jim Crow laws were put into effect – who one by one were stripped of their power. The museum’s lower floors ended on a high note, with Barrack Obama’s presidency, yet I couldn’t help but wish there was a ladder, trailing all the way back to the bottom with Trump’s name on it.

The first photo is of President Jefferson. The names on the wall behind him identify many of the 609 slaves he “owned” during his lifetime. Despite helping to create a new nation based on individual freedom and self-government, the Declaration of Independence did not uphold the idea that “all men are created equal.”

The second photo showcases stories from “The Black Press,” African American newspapers that focused on events in the black community that were often overlooked by other newspapers. The last image, Arty by Nelson Stevens, is located in the upper levels of the museum in the exhibit Visual Art and the American Experience. It was inspired by the archetypal Christian altarpieces from the Byzantine era. Stevens replaced the traditional white religious figures with an image of a young black woman.

The next day we made our way to the National Museum of the American Indian. Our first stop was the exhibit Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World. Made up of community galleries featuring eight Native American cultural philosophies, it was exciting to see a large section dedicated to the Anishinaabe (my ancestors). A beautiful display was created about their seven teachings: honesty, love, courage, truth, wisdom, humility, and respect. Also represented in the exhibit were the Pueblo of Santa Clara, Lakota, Quechua, Hupa, Q’eq’chi’ Maya, Mapuche, and Yup’ik. These tribes range from Canada, down to Chile.

Other things I loved: Psychic Space by Norval Morrisseau, an Anishinaabe artist (pictured below). My favorite exhibit was probably Americans: Highlighting the stories of Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn, the exhibit displayed countless examples of American Indian images, names, and stories infused in American history and contemporary life.

The hardest exhibit to get through was Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations. Filled with countless examples of the United States breaking its word, the exhibit walks you through the contested land, the negotiators, the treaty, and then the aftermath, rarely in the favor of the tribes who more often than not, kept their word, even when the United States government refused to. The exhibit ended with the mile-marker post created at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to show the distance some had traveled to support the tribe and protest the pipeline being built without adequately consulting the Native Nation that would be most affected.

That afternoon, we went in for some lighter fare at the National Gallery of Art. We spent significantly more time in the East Building (modern & contemporary art) than the West Building (traditional, a bit more stuffy, but home to the only Leonardo da Vinci in North America). That’s because the East Building was showcasing an exhibit titled: The Life of Animals in Japanese Art and that’s where all the following photos are from.

First, is Aged Monkey by Takamura Kōun. Sculpted in 1893, it won a gold medal when exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Next is Katsukawa Shunshō’s woodblock print titled Abalone Fishergirl with an Octopus. Last, is a small portion of a dynamic piece that took up two entire walls: Murakami Takashi’s In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow. It was created in response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima and other parts of northern Japan in 2011.

Our final day in DC brought us to two more museums. We thought we’d pop in to the Freer & Sackler Galleries for a a few minutes to view the enormous portrait of Chinese empress dowager Cixi, wandered further, and fell in love with their exhibit Encountering the Buddha. Featuring more than two hundred artworks, spanning two millennia, to explore Asia’s Buddhist heritage, the room even contained a replica Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room (photographed at the bottom of this next set).

Two other pieces of note: Iranian tile work from the fifteenth century and a twelfth century statue of Ganesha from India.

Our final museum was visited with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who served in Ethiopia with us. We went to the National Museum of African Art. I was a little disappointed that so much of the art came from a very small portion of the continent (West Africa), but I loved the exhibit I Am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa, a selection of artworks chosen to reveal a more contemporary feminism that recognizes the contributions of women to the most pressing issues of their times.

The first two photos below are from that exhibit: Sai Mado (The Distant Gaze) by Adia Muluneh [Ethiopa!] and Nike Davies-Okundaye’s Liberal Women Protest March. The third photo I’ve included is by an artist I fell in love with while living in Ghana. Local artist, El Anatsui, has been transforming discarded metal objects into wall and floor sculptures for over a decade. This particular piece is untitled, but we also saw his work at the Zeitz MOCAA during our trip to Cape Town earlier this year.

And, because no city review is complete without some food recommendations, here is a list of our highlights in DC:

Asmara: Technically Eritrean, not Ethiopian, but when you get 10 Ethiopian RPCVs together, you know you’ve got to eat something from East Africa. The bayonet was great, but they put chicken in the shiro…so I guess I can’t really recommend that part!

Smorgasburg DC: Located in Tingey Plaza, we went on a particularly hot day! That said, the food options were awesome and I cannot recommend EKIBEN’s steamed bun tofu sandwich enough. Equally delicious was the okonamiyaki (Japanese pancake) from Ramen by UZU.

Fare Well: Described as “veggie-centric comfort food,” we got the chickpea steak platter and mushroom scampi pasta with seitan sausage. It was a heavy meal, not quite as healthy as our usual fare, but we enjoyed it.

Fancy Radish: This was our absolute favorite meal in DC, and possibly in the United States this summer. A small menu, it contains 12 options: four listed under urban picnic, four under farm board, and four under wood & fire. There were four of us eating, so naturally we ordered 3/4 of the menu. The only thing I’d skip next time around is the vegetable charcuterie board (we could make this at home), but I still dream about some of the highlights, like the rutabaga fondue and the seared maitake mushroom. Another highlight was the choke pear perry by Aaron Burr Cider, a small homestead that forages apples and other fruit for their ciders.

With all of this happening, we only had a few minutes to pop into the United States Botanic Garden. It was even more beautiful than I expected and I definitely enjoyed the desert room the most!

Just like the rest of our summer, the time in DC passed in a blur. As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane to Chicago about to catch our final flight that will take us to our new home in Amman, Jordan. I’ve been a little quiet on the blog this summer, but I assume life in a new country will change that! Until next time xoxo

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