My favorite thing about DC is the abundance of culture that is easily accessible via museums, galleries, memorials and public art displays... and best of all, almost all of it is free!
This is a really long post with LOTS of pics, mostly taken by my husband Marcus. You can click on most of the pics to view them larger, which is especially handy for soaking in the details of some of the architectural wonders like the Library of Congress (shown above)!
"The Barmecide Feast"
I love the concept of immersive art, so I was delighted that we were in DC during a temporary exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum called "The Barmecide Feast", which was constructed in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you're familiar with the movie, you'll recognize this hotel room scene that artist Simon Birch recreated as a full-scale installation. The museum let up to 6 guests enter at a time for up to 2 minutes while wearing fashionable booties over our shoes so as not to damage the exhibit. I enjoyed exploring the otherworldly luminescence of the room! 😊
National Portrait Gallery
Next we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of our trip. Our main reason for going was to check out the "Hall of Presidents" (which was renamed "America's Presidents" when it reopened in September 2017). However we were thrilled by the beauty of the historic building as well as the quiet tranquility of the Kogod courtyard where we enjoyed a pastry and drinks in a hushed atmosphere, which felt like a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of DC.
The pic above is a panorama that my husband stitched together in Photoshop, so while it's somewhat distorted and makes the courtyard appear bigger than it is, hopefully it captures of the essence of the space with the soaring glass-and-steel ceiling that gently undulates across the space between the south wing of the museum and the north wing, letting in natural light while providing protection from the elements. With the indoor trees and other plants, the space felt like a refreshing indoor-outdoor hybrid.
After our snack we wandered into the Smithsonian American Art Museum which shares its main building with the National Portrait Gallery. What we loved about these exhibition halls is that the architecture was just as interesting as the art! The hall above was formerly the west wing of the Old Patent Office which you can see in this pic from the early 1900s. The Old Patent Office was one of the first public buildings built in DC, begun in 1836 and completed in 1868. During the Civil War, it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers who were tended to by the likes of Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) and poet Walt Whitman.
Afterwards we wound our way around to the National Portrait Gallery to check out the "America's Presidents" exhibit, first stopping by the new portrait of Michelle Obama. The Obama portraits got a lot of buzz at the time of their unveiling in February 2018 and two months later when we visited, each portrait still attracted a small but continuous crowd, with a steady line of people queuing to take photographs in front of Barack Obama's portrait. It was neat to see these portraits in person after first viewing them online.
I also enjoyed looking at the other presidential portraits while reflecting on how the art of portrait painting has evolved over the years, especially from around the mid-20th century onwards. If you're curious you can click here to see all of the presidential portraits all on the same page on the Smithsonian website.
Library of Congress, Jefferson Building
As "wowed" as we were by the Old Patent Office building, our absolute favorite building was the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. It's definitely one of the most stunning interiors I've ever had the pleasure to experience firsthand!
From the outside it looks like just any other building in DC, but once you step inside - WOW!!!
After you go through security you enter the Great Hall where you're surrounded by all this artistic opulence...
The decor is such a feast for the eyes it's almost overwhelming. Free tours are given every hour and I highly recommend taking one to learn more about this ornate building. The knowledgeable guides will tell you all about the meaning behind all the frescoes and statues, plus tell you all about the people who built and decorated the building as well as the plenitude of treasures it contains.
The Jefferson Building is one of 3 buildings that houses the Library of Congress, which is the oldest federal institution in the US, having been founded in 1800. With over 167,000,000 total items, the Library of Congress is considered the biggest library in the world (although some sources claim the British Library has more items, so maybe it depends on who you're asking on and on which side of the pond). 😁
The pics above and below are views from the second floor of the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building.
The panorama below offers a fish-eye view of the Great Hall:
I'm especially proud of Marcus for his photo below of the ceiling in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, with its six stained-glass skylights and aluminum plating:
Shown below is the Main Reading Room which you can glimpse for a few minutes on the tour, but you can only see it from behind a window. To get inside the Main Reading Room you have to get a Reader's Card for the Library of Congress, which is free and only takes a few minutes. Marcus and I are total bibliophiles who adore quiet and beautiful places so after the tour we signed up for our cards and spent about 10 minutes sitting inside this gorgeous room, soaking in the atmosphere. Cameras are not allowed since the room is meant for research, so the photo below was taken from the window during the tour.
Also, as if this dazzling ornateness wasn't enough, there's also some cool underground tunnels you can take from the Jefferson Building to the other two Library of Congress buildings (Madison and Adams) as well as to the Capitol Building. After our tour we walked the tunnel to the Madison building where we ate lunch in the cafeteria and later we walked the tunnel to the US Capitol Building. The tunnels were pretty quiet when we were there and seemed to be mainly used by staff rather than tourists, so it was a fun way to get around!
No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man
We checked out the No Spectators exhibit at Renwick Gallery, which showcased photographs, costumes, paintings and sculptures related to the Burning Man Festival which takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, attracting over 70,000 attendees over the course of a week each year. The gallery was crowded so I didn't take that many photos, but did snap a couple pics of the costumes above because I thought they were pretty cool. (Why can't we dress like that in every day life?! I would love that!) 😜
I also managed a quick iPhone pic of the 18ft tall floor-to-ceiling sculpture called Truth is Beauty by Marco Cochrane that dominates the room as you enter the exhibit. The stainless steel sculpture is lit from inside with LED lights and changes colors every few minutes. This sculpture is a replica of a 55ft tall sculpture he displayed at Burning Man in 2013.
National Gallery of Art
I adored the expansive atrium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building, which houses modern and contemporary art. The centerpiece is this monumental 920-lb mobile by Alexander Calder that gently sways with the lobby's air currents. Made of aluminum and steel, this mobile spans a staggering 85-ft across.
I've always been a fan of Wayne Thiebaud's cakes. I admire his muted color palette, repetition of shapes and the thick painterly quality of his brushstrokes, which result in a texture so reminiscent of cake icing.
Chuck Close takes fingerpainting to the next level in this 1985 portrait of his grandmother-in-law:
DC has some cool tunnels, and my favorite featured this cosmic light installation that contains around 41,000 computer-programmed LED nodes running along the entire 200-ft tunnel that connects the East and West Buildings of the National Gallery of Art. It kind of reminds me of Spaceship Earth at Epcot because you feel like you're being transported through the cosmos!
On the other end of the tunnel there's the Cascade Cafe as well as a coffee shop and 2 gift shops (a large bookstore with an amazing selection of art books and a smaller shop filled with creative toys and books for kids). We had an early lunch at the Cascade Cafe and selected a table right across the from the cascade waterfall (below). I'm a real sucker for art books - especially ones you wouldn't find in a typical bookstore - so after lunch I enjoyed a lengthy browse of the gift shops while Marcus relaxed with his coffee.
By the time we got to the West Building of the National Gallery we were pretty exhausted - all the intense sightseeing from the past few days was starting to catch up with us, so after checking out Ginevra de' Benci, Leonardo da Vinci's only painting on public view in the Americas, we wandered slowly through the rest of the building, pausing to admire the soaring rotunda modeled after the ancient Roman Parthenon.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened on September 24, 2016. The museum is so popular that it's only available to visit via timed entry tickets that are acquired online (and they go within minutes of becoming available) or via walk-ups every weekday at 1pm with only a limited number of tickets being issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
When we visited in April they had just begun trialing Walk-Up Wednesdays which allowed folks without a ticket to get in line and enter without a ticket. We got there 45 minutes before the museum opened and by the time it did open the line was already winding behind the building (shown above). They only let in a certain amount of people at a time due to building capacity, so we were surprised that we got in only 30 minutes after the museum opened. We were delighted too because on that morning it was so cold outside (around 46 degrees with the wind chill)! However despite the cold there was a buzz of excitement in the air as everyone waited patiently in line.
We started with the bottom 3 floors which are underground and focus on African American history. To get there you take an elevator down to the bottom level that covers Slavery and Freedom (1400-1877). The floor above that focuses on The Era of Segregation (1876-1968) and the floor above that covers the Civil Rights Movement from 1968 and beyond. The lower floors are very sobering and intense so I didn't take any pictures, though I appreciated all the skill and effort that went into designing the informative displays and exhibits. As you exit the bottom floors there is a Contemplative Court where you can sit and reflect amidst the sound of cascading water from the ceiling fountain.
After lunch at the museum's Sweet Home Cafe, we explored the upper floors of the museum which are dedicated to African American achievements and contributions to society with exhibits showcasing culture (music, movies, TV, visual arts, literature, theater, dance, etc), sports, communities, organizations, military service and more.
Two paintings really caught my eye:
The above painting, St. John the Baptist by Kehinde Wiley, was painted with gold leaf and oil paint on wood and metal. I was struck by the exquisite rendering of the figure framed by the luminous gold frame. The decorate leaves and flowers in front of the figure help situate him within the frame and provide a nice color contrast to the dominant gold hues.
If you're familiar with my art then it should come as no surprise that I was instantly attracted to the above painting titled Sankofa II by James Phillips. I admire the colors, details and overlaying patterns that create a sense of movement in this large acrylic on canvas painting.
Well, that's our DC trip in a nutshell! This blog post only covers less than half of what we did during our 6-day trip but we did so much that writing about it all would be exhausting. 😁 I think it gives you a good idea of some of the art and architecure that really captivated our attention. Sometimes I feel like DC isn't considered as "cool" a place to visit as other major cities (like NYC, London or Paris) but the amount of culture in DC (art, museums, etc) is really amazing and educational. All in all it was a fun and inspiring trip that makes me eager to travel more after I've finished my deadlines for this year.
Thanks for reading & I'll catch you again soon!
Follow me on Instagram to see more of my travel pics!