Besides viewing the Fourth of July fireworks from the base of the Washington Monument, one great thing about spending the day in the nation’s capital is getting to spend some time in the Smithsonian museums. This institution truly is one of the great treasures of America, providing a whole array of museums, collections, and exhibits that encompass just about anything that is great about this country. And all for free!
Although the Institution is named for the British scientist, James Smithson, who left about $500,000 (at the time, a princely sum) to the United States “for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men,” the credit should really go to John Quincy Adams. You see, the money that Smithson bequeathed (bequoth?) was all invested in shaky bonds, which defaulted by the time the US received them from the British courts. John Quincy Adams successfully convinced Congress to come up with the amount, plus interest; he also managed to keep the money for its original intent (it seems that Congressmen back in 1836 were very similar to their 2012 counterparts when it comes to “free” money).
Ten years later, in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was created as part of the federal government…but NOT part of (nor governed by) either the judicial, legislative, or executive branches. Instead, it was established as a trust by the government on behalf of the American people (OK, so maybe Congressmen were a little bit better back then). Its employees are federal employees and official members of its Board include the Vice President and the Chief Justice, as well as six members of Congress (three from the House, three from the Senate).
Since that time, the Smithsonian Institution has collected and exhibited a vast array of artistic, scientific, and cultural objects, with over 137 million items in its care. It oversees two magazines, one zoo, nine research centers, and, of course, 19 museums, all with free admission. That makes them the perfect place to spend an Independence Day…and not just for the air conditioning, although that’s pretty nice, too.
This year, we wandered away from the Mall and ventured north a few blocks to check out the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. Technically, these are two separate museums but they occupy the opposite halves of the same building; you can wander from one to the other, with only the art to create any dividing line (“hmmm…this is all faces of people now…must be the Portrait Gallery”). Together, they are worth a full day’s wanderjahr through several amazing exhibits.
Some highlights include:
- Various landscapes and paintings of America, right when you walk into the American Art side, first floor. Thomas Moran’s landscape Grand Canyon of Yellowstone fairly glows with its realistic morning light. Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract Manhattan gives you a sense of “city” without any recognizable skyline or building. Two Cape Cod paintings by Edward Hopper (I love his Nighthawks) almost physically transported me back to my childhood summers.
- The gallery of Presidential portraits. A permanent exhibit, this collection includes portraits of all the U.S. Presidents. While the “official” portraits are kept by the White House, these paintings–more so than any photograph–serve to give you a sense of character, real or imagined. Norman Rockwell’s portrait of Nixon seemed to portray him through a very Rockwellian lens of America…and what a President should be, rather than what he is. Carter seemed swallowed up in the 70’s decor of his Oval Office while the lack of background details really set apart a laughing Reagan. George Stuart’s Landsdowne portrait of George Washington seemed almost mythical in its composition, as I’m sure it was meant to be.
- Paul Manship’s sculptures. He was a huge supporter of the Smithsonian while alive, serving on the board; when he died, he left most of his works to the Institution. His work inspired a return to a more realistic style than abstracts and presaged the Art Deco movement. The sculptures on display at the American Art Museum were mostly inspired by Greek mythology. You’ve seen his stuff before…he did the Prometheus statue that stands over the ice rink at Rockefeller Center.
- Mike Wilkins’ Preamble. He created a wall of license plates, one from each state (and the District of Columbia), that spells out the Preamble to the Constitution. Inspired…and inspiring.
All in all, a pretty enjoyable Fourth of July. Of course, not everyone has the Smithsonian in their backyard. But just about every community has some sort of art museum. So go out and go see some art…your brain will thank you for it!