A Thanksgiving Trip
For Thanksgiving this year, I went to Washington DC where my brother Joe and very pregnant sister-in-law Patty played host. I was only in town a few days, but I went to the National Mall with my other brother Dan and sister-in-law Joyce and to the National Zoo with my mother. What follows is a limited trip report, minus the turkey.
National Museum of the American Indian
The inside of the museum, looking down into the atrium from the second floor balcony.
You can see part of the longboat exhibit to the right.
One of the newest Smithsonian museums on the National Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian. Located next to the Air and Space Museum, it opened in September 2004 and still feels new and wonderful. The building itself is graceful yet powerful, with no right angles. PDF brochure From the outside, the waves of adobe-colored concrete look like the museum is built into a hillside. Through the doors, the massive conical atrium feels like the inside of a bark teepee. Ducks swim in the moving water on the mall side of the grounds. There are several movie theaters; we saw a terrific movie in the Main Theater that spanned Native American culture from New York City to Peru to Barrow Alaska. An elevator takes you to the 4th floor and you wander the trail of exhibits down. We only had time to fully explore part of the top floor. "Our Universes focuses on Native cosmology--the worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe--and the spiritual relationship between mankind and the natural world." A series of exhibition spaces shows and tells the origin myths and everyday spirituality in the lives of several tribes in the Americas. It's all too easy to lump "Indians" together when, in fact, dozens of unrelated tribes over two continents had very different worldviews and lifestyles.
Much of the Native American culture was destroyed or irreparably altered by the coming --and staying -- of the Europeans after Columbus. "Our Peoples explores events that shaped the lives and outlook of Native peoples from 1491 to the present." Calmly but not dispassionately, the exhibit takes you through disease, famine, slaughter and genocide brought by the Europeans, and how this affected life for the survivors. On the flip side, the exhibit brags about the food and other products brought from the now-named Americas to Europe and beyond, and their continuing effect. Tobacco, corn, chocolate, gold and much more.
I've reviewed lots of restaurants in my time, but I've never reviewed a cafeteria before. The Mitsitam Café is the only restaurant I've visited with a docent. As we were at the head of the long line, next to enter, a museum employee carefully described the five food stations representing five different tribes from five areas of two continents. Don't just pick the first thing you see, he said, but explore first. All the stations have main dishes, sides, soups, etc. Once inside, I could see that it wasn't a typical slide-your-tray-down-the-line place. The food itself wasn't terrific, but it was good and inexpensive (for a tourist place in a museum). The three of us couldn't resist and sampled dishes from all over, including buffalo burgers, venison, purple potatoes, seafood soup, pumpkin pie and sassafras tea. I'm not sure how pure they were trying to be, but I didn't see anything that wasn't originally from the New World.
Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Sometimes moreso. With only a little prompting about her heritage, one of the cafeteria workers launched into a history of her immediate ancestry. Dolores Palmer is part "Blackfeet. Not Blackfoot. Neither of our ankles were ever in chains. We were never slaves". It seemed most of the museum employees were native Americans, and proud of their work. An amazing place.
Dolores Palmer: "Blackfeet, not Blackfoot"
Outside window to the right: pool and waterfall, with ducks.
The National Zoo
The National Zoo, also run by the Smithsonian, is a treasure. It's free and extensive. I've gone to the zoo several times, and I still haven't seen everything. Perhaps their most famous animals are the giant pandas. The pandas have a large area in which to roam around, and an inside exhibit details much of their life, habitat and eating preferences. When we were there, one of the pandas, presumably the lighter female Mei Xiang, was comfortable resting in the crook of a tall tree, dozens of feet above the ground. Panda cam
Baron Dave poses while a giant panda rests waaay up in a tree
the panda is the small black-and-white animal near the middle of the top left quadrant
The Bird House is also always worth a visit. Outside, several pools of water host ducks and flamencos in a comfortable space. The ground floor has a several large spaces for various interesting birds. Exhibits include an extensive listing and map of extinct species. In the middle of the building is a large wooded atrium where the birds fly free and you can see them with no barriers. You're visiting their habitat.
The Textile Museum
I've never quite understood the high technology of weaving despite hands-on exhibits in places like The Textile Museum. It's a small place, but interesting. At the entrance to the museum, you can pick up magnifying glasses. No touching! But you're encouraged to look closely.
The current exhibit is on the fabric of the Chin people, from Western Myanmar/northeastern India/eastern Bangladesh. Many examples of fabrics, ranging from the ceremonial to indications of status, are on display, with descriptions of weaving technique. The Chin are an ethnic minority of two million, and the examples are recent. It's a part of the world I don't usually get a look at. Upstairs is a small display of 18th Century Persian carpet fragments and an Activity Gallery.
I went with my mother, who is much more into the subject, and it was fun to watch a real maven's eyes light up. The gift shop is small but compact. The Textile Museum just a few houses away from The Woodrow Wilson House, where the former president spent the last three years of his life. We didn't have a chance to duck into it, but the whole area looks ripe for exploration.
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
Meanwhile, my brother Joseph Romm has a book coming out in January. Look for it. Order your copy now. You'll hear a lot more about it in the coming months. Hell and High Water is a major examination of the most important issue of our lifetime. I talked to him about the book, and will make a podcast of our conversation closer to the release date.