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National Museum of American History

Julia Child's kitchen, National Museum of American History

[Gail Irving]

In yesterday’s post on our Civil War trip, I concluded with our departure from the Gettysburg Friendly’s after lunch (a week ago yesterday) to drive to Washington, D.C. Here I will describe the remainder of the day, featuring a way-too-brief visit to the National Museum of American History.

Our drive was mostly routine. We headed south, eventually merged onto the Beltway and continued south through the Potomac-Bethesda area in Maryland, then crossed the Potomac into Virginia, at which point we left the Beltway to follow the Potomac southeastward along the George Washington Parkway. Since the parkway genuinely goes through parkland and the trees were fully leafed, there wasn’t much to see, which wouldn’t have been an issue except that we wanted to figure out which exit would lead us to a gas station where we could fill the car up before delivering it to Hertz. As an exit in Langley approached, Gail suggested I give it a try.

Oops! Wrong exit. It sure is convenient if you want to drop in on the George Bush CIA headquarters, but that’s about all it does. The ramp takes you straight to a guard booth and heavy fencing, just 50 yards ahead as one completes the turn. We went for the u-turn just before the booth and returned to the parkway, getting our gas an exit later.

Our iPhone google map directions wanted us to get off the parkway at Key Bridge in order to re-cross the Potomac into DC, but I decided, having looked at the map the night before, that the next bridge — the Teddy Roosevelt bridge — would provide a more engaging entry into the city. That’s what we took, crossing over Roosevelt Island and then into DC with the Kennedy Center immediately on our left and the Lincoln Memorial ahead to the right. This approach puts you right on Constitution Avenue eastbound, allowing you to drive along the northern border of the mall. We passed the Vietnam memorial (not actually visible from the north side), then had a splendid view a few blocks later of the Washington Monument on our right and the White House on our left. Just beyond was 15th Street, and then 14th, our goal, since our hotel was three blocks north on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 14th and 15th, and I needed to approach its entrance from the 14th or eastern side. As it turns out, that left turn north from Constitution Avenue to 14th is illegal, except for buses and taxis, which Gail pointed out to me halfway through my turn. Oh well. Another mistake. But a convenient one. In seconds, we pulled up to the Willard, where we checked in, went up to our room to make sure everything was okay, then returned to the car.

My illegal turning had just begun. We went around the block to head east on F Street to Union Station, where we were to return our car. I had failed a week earlier to see any Hertz return lot, so I knew a mystery awaited, a mystery we might have addressed better by calling Hertz ahead of time rather than driving to the main entrance of Union Station on the south side and finding no sign of a car return. As I drove past, made a few turns, and headed back under the south side of the station, Gail reached someone at Hertz, who explained (I was now driving north past the station on its west side) that we needed to drive into the station’s parking garage, which is on its north side. I had accidentally managed to line myself up perfectly for this. We made the right turn onto H Street and there was the garage entrance. Or two entrances. Or was it an entrance and an exit? I started to turn into the first entrance, only to realize that it was for taxis and buses. I tried to back up. All I needed was to back up about 3 yards, then go another 10 yards ahead to the entry/exit ramp of the garage. But by now I had a taxi behind me, honking at me, and he wasn’t going to budge. So up the taxi ramp I went, cursing all the way. And down another ramp I went, way past the correct entrance to the garage. I won’t recount what happened next, except that my fury only increased, Gail got upset at me, and two more illegal turns plus a big bump brought me into the garage. We were soon backing into a Hertz spot, checking in with an attendant, and going down to the station itself to check out at the Hertz desk.

Now what? It was approaching 4:00 in the afternoon. I pointed out to Gail that rather than just returning to the hotel and settling in, we could race to some museum and see a couple of things before it closed. She voted for the National Museum of American History. I knew this would be a good choice, in terms of location, since it sits on Constitution where I made my first illegal turn, 3 blocks south of the Willard. If we went there, we would have a short walk to our room afterwards.

On to Union Station’s Metro station. I studied the map, figured out that our fare would be $1.65 apiece, studied the machines (which I thought I had learned to use 3 months earlier when I was commuting between the Willard and Arlington), bought each of us a one-use pass, and down we headed. With a change of trains at Metro Center, we were soon at the Federal Triangle stop, under the Reagan building. Alas, our passes didn’t work when we tried to exit. An employee happened to be there and he suggested we didn’t have enough money on our cards. I insisted we did. That’s when he pointed to a sticker on the turnstile indicating a fare increase, the same sticker I had ignored on the ticket machine. It seemed we were 10 cents short. Sigh. Back to the ticket machines to add the 10 cents on each ticket, and finally we were out of there.

We arrived at the museum at 4:30, relieved to discover that closing time was 5:30, so we had more time than we thought. Not that we had any particular goals there other than to see Julia Child’s Cambridge kitchen, the reason Gail had selected it, and we would have had plenty of time even if the museum closed at 5:00.

The museum’s proximity to the Willard made it our first stop also when we arrived in Washington with Joel in August 1996. My main memory of that visit was seeing the star-spangled banner. You know. The star-spangled banner, the one that flew over Fort McHenry, the one whose broad stripes and bright stars Francis Scott Key saw from Baltimore’s harbor. Julia Child’s kitchen is a more recent addition, donated by Julia to the Smithsonian (of which the museum is a part) in 2001.

The information desk by the museum’s entrance had a greatest hits sort of sheet, listing on two sides about 10 or 12 exhibits or objects to look at in a short visit. That was perfect for us, all the more since the kitchen was one of them. We went straight to One West and made our way to the kitchen. It’s sponsored by Bon Appétit. What else is new? Most of the exhibits in the museum had private sponsorship and accompanying signage that functioned as advertising. No matter. The kitchen was great. Where there were doors, lucite covered the entry. Plus one entire wall was removed and replaced by lucite, the wall on which Julia’s pots and pans hung. One could look into the kitchen through this missing wall, or turn 180 degrees and see the wall up against the back wall of the exhibit room. It’s a pegboard wall on which Paul Child had used magic marker to draw the shapes of the many pans, allowing guests to figure out easily where to re-hang them.

For more on the kitchen, you should go to the link I included earlier (and again just now for convenience) and click on the enter button. A new window will open with a flash slide show and Julia’s narration.

What next? Up to the 2nd floor to see the star-spangled banner. It’s kept in a darkened room, stretched out at a tilt of maybe 20 degrees, behind a tall lucite window. You stand in the viewing area, or sit, waiting for your vision to improve, then you can study the flag and read the sign explaining that it originally had 15 stars and 15 stripes, but one of the stars was removed, as was a good piece of the flag cutting across the stripes at the end away from the stars. Meanwhile, while you examine the flag as best you can, hordes of school groups troop through, take a look, and move on, some of the kids taking photos despite the clearly displayed prohibition.

Interesting, these groups, typically 7th or 8th or 9th graders. I don’t know what a reasonable expectation should be for their attention span, their interest, their stamina. This was presumably the end of a long day for them. They appeared to be more interested in chatting and texting. They were everywhere. And each group had its own trip t-shirt, like a t-shirt for a band tour. On the front would be a slogan, on the back a list of their first names and maybe the school name, or the city. The farthest away among the groups I identified was one from Wisconsin.

Anyway, on with our top ten tour of the museum. An Edison light bulb. The Woolworth’s lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina where North Carolina A&T students staged a sit-in in 1960. The gunboat Philadelphia commanded by Benedict Arnold that sank in Lake Champlain during a battle with the British. And on the third floor east, a major exhibit, Price of Freedom: Americans at War.

This exhibit is sponsored by Kenneth Behring, whose name — as we discovered when we exited — is on the building as a whole. It’s the Behring Center. And I just now read at his wikipedia entry that he gave $80 million to the museum in 2000, with $16 million earmarked for the Price of Freedom exhibit, which opened in 2004. I was unaware of his generosity. What I did know — what every Seattle resident of a certain age knows — is that he’s the guy who tried to move the Seahawks to Anaheim under cover of darkness. We don’t look too kindly on him in these here parts.

As for his exhibit, oddly enough, I had a hard time focusing on the first part, dealing with the Revolutionary War. We were immersed in the Civil War. It was too jarring to think about other wars. I suggested to Gail, especially with closing time approaching, that we move straight to the Civil War. I almost hesitated as we passed the Mexican-American War, but we moved on. Probably a wise move, under the circumstances. In the remaining 15 minutes, we were able to move through an abbreviated history of the war, culminating with our viewing of the table and two chairs from Appomattox Court House pictured below.

The significance of these is explained at the museum website with the following text:

On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee met in the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the United States Army. Sitting in the chair on the right, Grant discussed the fate of Lee’s troops. Then, leaning over the oval table, he drafted and signed the final terms of surrender. While there were still Confederate troops in the field under other commanders, Lee’s surrender effectively marked the end of the Civil War.

Union officers, recognizing the significance of the event, individually took pieces of furniture as souvenirs. General E. W. Whitaker grabbed Lee’s chair, General Henry Capehart claimed Grant’s chair, and General Philip Sheridan took the table and presented it to the wife of Major General George Amstrong Custer. In three separate donations, by 1915, these items were reunited at the Smithsonian Institution.

That was it. A woman worked her way through the exhibit, ushering us out. We headed down two flights, out the south exit into the mall, and watched the school groups run around.

[Gail Irving]

Then we headed over to 14th Street, up to Pennsylvania, and into the Willard.

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Categories: Culture, History, Travel
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