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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Institutionalized


Poor lighting quality and slightly-skewed angle aside, you probably recognize the building in the above photograph. If you don't, it's the Smithsonian Castle, home to the administrative offices of, and serving as the information center for, the Smithsonian Institution. Arguably the world's greatest museum complex, the Smithsonian comprises 19 museums, the majority of which are here in Washington, D.C. (we've already visited the National Zoo and the National Portrait Gallery). Standing tall in front of the castle is a statue of James Smithson, the wealthy British gentleman who bequeathed $500,000 to the United States in the first half of the 19th century to "found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge", according to his will. He did this without ever having set foot in this country, though his remains have been entombed in Washington since 1904:


Inside the castle there isn't a whole lot to see and do other than get an idea of what special exhibitions are going on at the various museums and galleries, and pay inflated prices for lunch in the café there (though my daughter enjoyed the introductory video hosted by Ben Stiller). The cathedral-like architecture is impressive, however, especially in the West Wing and Range, where a sampling of displays gave an idea of the plethora of objects to be seen in the Smithsonian:


There was an interesting exhibit on Civil War-era photography, featuring the famous photographer Mathew Brady. The power of the photographs was best illustrated in this shot of a teenage girl dressed in mourning clothes and holding a picture of her deceased soldier father (taken by an anonymous photog, and not Brady):



My daughter enjoys the sunny weather out on the Mall


Next door to the Castle is an even better reason to visit, at least if you have any interest in the subject, for the Smithsonian has the National Museum of Asian Art. Consisting of two galleries, we ventured into the Freer Gallery of Art, named after one Charles Lang Freer, who donated his extensive collection to the nation, where it's been housed in the same building since 1923. The Japanese collection, especially, is one of the best in the world outside of Japan. On display today were some screen paintings by the noted artist Hokusai 葛飾北斎:




Other galleries held examples of Japanese Buddhist imagery, such as these Four Heavenly Kings 四天王 and this Amida Buddha 阿弥陀如来:



Chinese art was also represented at the Freer, including these vessels from the Early Western Zhou Dynasty 西周:


The Freer's pride of place is undoubtedly the Peacock Room, a paneled-room of decorative gold leaf created by none other than James Abbott McNeill Whistler, of Whistler's Mother fame:


The inner courtyard of the Freer Gallery

My daughter enjoyed the various objet d'art, but for her the highlight of our afternoon in the District had to be the ride on a 1940's-era carousel that had been set up across the street from the Smithsonian Castle:


In addition to the Freer, there is also the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which apparently houses a greater collection of Chinese art. I say "apparently" because we didn't get around to going inside this afternoon. No problem, however. We can always come back another time, especially because all of these attractions are free of charge to visit. It's the kind of socialized edification for the masses that probably drives certain conservatives crazy (not that they aren't nuts to begin with), and for which we are grateful.








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