My husband and I were loosely planning on being in Germany visiting friends and then Sicily touring the birthplace of my paternal grandmother these past two weeks except for the fact that we had neglected to plan any part of that trip, hadn’t given the specifics much thought, until roughly the beginning of September. So rather than going through all the gyrations trying to make that trip work, we postponed Europe until the spring, and we shifted focus to my long-dreamed-of destinations of Charleston and Savannah. That was relatively easy to put together and we were all set with wonderful hotel and restaurant reservations until Hurricane Matthew had other plans for many people from Haiti and then up the American coast from Florida to the Carolinas. It was soon apparent that Charleston and Savannah would have to wait again. But undaunted, what we lack in planning skills, we more than make up for in flexibility. We still wanted to go somewhere, but where? We love to visit Washington, DC every few years anyway because it’s always changing, something new is always being added. So last week, with about 2-days’ “planning,” off we went for a six-day stay in Washington!
We had three must-see places to visit this time in the nation’s capital: the brand new African-American museum, the Newseum, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. To our credit, we got our tickets to Monticello online before we left, because that involved a bus ride to Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the time at the plantation itself. We figured we could get the tickets to the Newseum when we arrived. But for some reason, we didn’t think about getting our tickets for the African American Museum even though it was touted as the most sought-after venue in Washington right now.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM…..
Officially called the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this museum, which opened just 3 weeks ago on September 24, is part of the Smithsonian collection and is on the National Mall The building’s three-tiered shape is in the form of a traditional Yoruban crown. The exterior corona is made of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels. The facade sets it apart from the other limestone buildings pervasive in Washington. As we walked closer, the exterior of the building didn’t strike me as beautiful so much as powerful and majestic.
As I have mentioned, we did not obtain our tickets ahead of time for the African American museum. Approaching the building, we noticed a very long line of people waiting to get in. We just took our place at the end of the line and started talking to a young black man who was there from New York City. Entry to the museum is free but he showed us that he had gone online and printed timed tickets for that day at 11 a.m. It was now about 10:45. He said he didn’t know if my husband and I were going to be able to get in given the demand and his understanding that timed tickets were sold out through March 2017. He said there seemed to be a ticket booth for people who just wanted to try to get in that day. My husband and I got out of line and went up to a guide to ask for directions to the ticket booth. The guide told us that, as non-ticket holders, the line in which we had been waiting was the correct line. We told him that there were many people in that line who had timed tickets so they should be notified that they didn’t have to wait. Our friend in line, whose name we found out was Gideon, saw us talking to the guide and waved to us to come back over to him. When we reached him, he said that when he got his tickets, he had printed off several because he thought a number of his friends were going to join him but it turned out they would not be there. He pulled out his folder and gave us 2 timed tickets for the 11 a.m. entry! We didn’t know how to thank him. He said, “You don’t need to do anything for me; just do something kind for someone else and pass it on.” The kindness of strangers, indeed! The beauty of that moment was overwhelming! Thank you, again, Gideon!
Our day in the museum lived up to every expectation we had. I would say that about 90% of the visitors who were there on the day we visited were African American. But the story told in the museum is broadly American. We learned that the collection of artifacts was brought together in a remarkable way. The curators had almost nothing when they started and thus began a search of 15 American cities asking ordinary people to contribute items or heirlooms that they may have in their basements or attics that would help them tell the African American story. The expanse of this collection is breathtaking – from shackles, to Nat Turner’s Bible, to pottery, and Ku Klux Klan hoods.
The journey is broken up into two segments: as one enters, the visitor descends 70 feet below ground level to the narrative of the history of African Americans from slave trade through the election of Barack Obama and beyond.
The cafeteria is on the second floor and, I have to tell you, this is not an ordinary cafeteria! It is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. The menu is regional, based on areas where African Americans first came into this country. Example: I had a squash bisque soup with roasted oysters – the oysters roasted on the spot – that could have been served with pride at any five-star restaurant.
On the third floor, the vast contribution of African Americans to our culture is told: from the many notable sports figures to theater to music to art and industry.
Indeed the 40,000 artifacts that the curators obtained chronicle from the beginning of the slave trade in the 1400’s, through the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the racial oppression and lynchings and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800’s into the early decades of the 1900’s. The exhibit continues with the story of segregation and the heroes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s, highlighting Brown vs the Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the bombings of the early 1960’s, the Freedom Summer of 1964, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This section was particularly poignant to my husband and me, teenagers in the 1960’s, since we watched on TV every evening the civil rights struggle, the race riots in the cities throughout the country and the bombings. It becomes even more heartrending as we realize we live in a nation with integration laws on the books, where we have elected and re-elected our first black president, but where we still need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter, where real racial divides persist and where we have to continue to examine how our society works.
We were in the museum for five hours and it was a day very well spent. I would say that to do real justice to it, you probably need two days.
The Newseum is not new. It was originally founded in 1997. But the building that we visited is a replacement site that opened in April, 2008. Its a very modern structure that offers wonderful vistas of Washington from several vantage points. It’s an interactive museum whose mission is to promote, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
I have a real interest in journalism and news and how it’s communicated so this was something that I really wanted to see this time in Washington. I was not disappointed!
First of all, it is fun. My husband and I put on virtual reality goggles and virtually visited national parks, skydived, deep sea dived and experienced five other adventures! I had seen this demonstrated on TV but it really does simulate actually doing it, without the fear of harm to life and limb (which I recognize is an essential adrenaline rush to those brave enough to actually do some of these things – my friends who are in this category know who they are! I myself was having a bit of indigestion as I sat in my comfy chair but knew the skydiving – even the fake variety – was coming up!).
Second of all, it’s fascinating! As I’m writing this, it’s occurring to me that you probably have to be a bit nerdy and a news junkie to appreciate it but you can go back and read top stories from the past 100 years. View Pulitzer Prize winning photos. Nerdy, huh? And if you’re really lucky, visitors can watch actual interviews being conducted by notable journalists and with their famous subjects. Nothing like that happened while we were there, however.
News tickers scroll up-to-the-minute news; indoors, news choppers are suspended overhead; and every day, someone researches and posts that day’s front pages of major newspapers around the United States and the world! In addition, artifacts from major events are displayed, such as the wreckage of the 9/11 broadcast tower and a shot-up pick up truck used by reporters from Time Magazine during the 1990’s wars in the former Yugoslavia.
There was a major exhibit of the 1989 reunification of Germany with a large segment of the Berlin Wall on display. I stood at that exhibit for a long time and remembered the story told to me by a German friend, a colleague of my husband’s. On a visit to Berlin in 2006, he walked with us throughout the city, now beautiful and vibrant, very cosmopolitan. Our friend was born in East Germany; he was nine years old when the wall was erected in August 1961 and, he was 37 when it was ripped down by jubilant Germans on November 9, 1989. During the 28 years of the wall’s existence, he attended Humboldt University in East Berlin and achieved advanced degrees in Mathematics; he married and had two children. He eventually became a professor of Mathematics in East Germany but a maintenance man at his university received a higher salary than his. It would take him 10 years to buy a car because he had to get on a waiting list.
We approached the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the nominal barrier beyond which the East Berliners could not pass. He told us that armed guards would stop people two blocks before reaching the Gate, which was then covered in concertina wire, and threaten to shoot if they moved closer. He told us they lived in fear and among the rubble and shabbiness that was left over from the World War II bombings. Little was done to make their surroundings better after the war. I just listened in silence, afraid that if I asked a question I might dislodge a memory that was too painful. He told me that before the wall came down, there had been rumblings for some time about reunification. There had been rumors. His wife remained skeptical and was afraid to try to cross with their children, afraid of being captured. But on the night of November 9, he said to his wife, “I think this time it’s real.” And they crossed. Finally I ventured a question: “What did you think when you first saw the West.” He said that what struck him were all the colors: little shops painted red, signs of different colors on new buildings, abundant clothing of different colors in store windows. And then he got angry. All those years living ramshackle amid grey and brown, with limited opportunity, with fear. That’s what I thought about as I stood in front of the wall fragment at the museum.
Monticello, our last must-see on this trip, is Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. It is beautiful, nestled in the rolling hills around Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson was a definite renaissance man, who strategized the American Revolution and drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was a man of the arts and architecture, and of the sciences. He also designed every aspect of Monticello and founded and designed the University of Virginia.
As a working plantation, Monticello became “the paradox of slavery contrasted with the ideals of liberty expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration” as the visitors’ guide portrays him. He was a man of his class and time, who believed in equality but, who, for most of his life was the owner of over 200 enslaved people, most of whom came to him by inheritance. Like many of the founding fathers, he lived with this dichotomy.
As always, we experienced another wonderful, enlightening, thought-provoking trip to Washington.
Until we meet again……