A June 2002 trip
to Washington, D.C. by Idler
Quote: A Washington area bibliophile explores the astonishingly rich collections of paper-based artifacts housed on or near the Mall. Everything from rare postage stamps to Shakespeare First Folios can be found within a small radius of the Capitol Dome.
One of the best things about objects in the libraries and museums on the Mall is the knowledge that, for the most part, they are yours. While few of us will ever have a first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass or L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz on our shelves, as citizen we are owners in absentia of all the holdings in the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. With this in mind, I set out for to pay a few visits to my books.
Remember that new security precautions on the Mall mean that virtually every bag or parcel you carry will be searched when you enter buildings. Avoid carrying bags with multiple zippers and compartments unless you relish standing in semi-embarrassment while a guard pokes carefully though them. An open tote bag works best (perhaps stashing valuables in a money belt).
Not all places allow photography, but some will. Deactivate your flash both to avoid exposing rare books to bright light and to prevent the "flash glare" that results when photographing items in glass cases. Use fast film instead.
Staff responses to specific questons about the collections vary widely, though in general the desk staff in the huge Smithsonian museums have little time for nonessentials or experience with bookish inquiries, whereas in smaller places, such as the Folger, the staff are extremely patient as well as exceptionally well-infomed.
Restaurant | "The Best Mall Pit-Stop: The Pavilion Café"
Hah! Snap out of it! This is the Mall, for heaven’s sake. Your options are to brown-bag it, chance it at one of the hot dog purveyors on Constitution or Independence Avenues, or dine at one of the museum eateries.
Alas, all Mall restaurants are not created equal. Avoid, if you possibly can, the monster cafeterias in the Air & Space Museum, Museum of American History, and Natural History Museum. That is, unless you really enjoy deafening shoals of schoolchildren and cluttered lunchroom-style dining. (Oh, and did I mention that it’ll cost you a small fortune? How remiss of me.) The sad fact is that the Smithsonian, stellar though its museums may be, has a "head ‘em up, and move ‘em out!" cattle-drive approach to dining.
Luckily, the National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian. So, should you find yourself on the Mall and in dire need of sustenance, it’s best to head to one of the four cafes run by the National Gallery: the Cascade Café (located in the underground concourse between the West and East Buildings), the Garden Café (on the ground floor of the West Building), the Terrace Café (in the upper level of the East Building), or the Pavilion Café (in a small freestanding building in the Sculpture Garden).
While I’ve eaten in all four National Gallery cafés, my pick of the lot is the Pavilion Café. It’s nestled in the green oasis of the Sculpture Garden, right alongside a fountain plaza that doubles as an ice rink in the winter. The café itself is an architectural gem – a low curvilinear building, all glass, metal tracery, and natural lighting. You can sit inside and have a marvelous view of the oversized Calders, Oldenburgs, and Lichtensteins set amongst the trees and shrubbery. Better yet, weather permitting take your tray outside and sit at an umbrella-shaded table to listen to the splash of the fountain and breathe the hydrangea-scented air.
The food’s not shabby either. The salads, sandwiches, and entrees are all freshly prepared and reasonably priced. A bed of romaine lettuce topped with chilled poached salmon, thin slices of red onion, croutons, and tangy dressing was my choice for a delicious light lunch recently. Folks at a nearby table were commenting on how well they liked their selections – oversized, crusty panini sandwiches.
A lunch like that, and you’re ready to take on the world again. Or at least the Smithsonian.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 29, 2002
Natonal Gallery Sculpture Garden
Washington, District of Columbia
Attraction | "Serious Money: Bureau of Engraving and Printing"
I first got an inkling of this when I visited the B.E.P.’s website. In order to take a public tour of the facility, you need same-day tickets issued for a specific time, and must present a valid, government-issued photo I.D. at the ticket kiosk outside the BEP. Even though that process starts at 8 a.m., tickets are snapped up quickly, so the BEP recommends coming early.
Heeding this advice, I arrived outside the B.E.P. at 7:50, fully expecting to be one of the first in line. Wrong. There had to be at least thirty people already patiently waiting there. The teenage boy in front of me was making his second attempt to take the tour, having shown up too late (midmorning) the previous day to secure a ticket.
An armed and preternaturally stern looking Treasury Department Police Officer (yes, they have their own police force) began working his way down the line, looking each visitor in the eye before asking for his or her I.D. He scrutinized each I.D. and visitor individually before reciting a list of the many things which are NOT allowed inside the BEP. Before entering the BEP security screening area, our I.D’s were rechecked, all handbags were thoroughly searched and each visitor was individually "wanded." Then, finally, before the tour commenced, a brief video informed us of the things we shouldn’t do while inside the building, like touch the ceiling (which contains alarms) or take photos.
With that final set of instructions, our group of some thirty people was ushered through a set of heavy double doors into a long, narrow, glass-enclosed corridor looking out over the printing presses. Essentially, the tour winds through the building, following the sequence of machinery that ultimately produces one dollar bills. It’s quite an amazing technical feat, really. Our guide recited the official tour speech that she’d clearly memorized verbatim (though she repeatedly mispronounced the name of the printing method, "intaglio"), giving us the bare facts of the almost hopelessly complex printing process. The high-speed, sheet-fed rotary presses print over 8,000 sheets per hour, running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The BEP produces an almost incomprehensible amount of money daily, some 37 million notes, worth roughly $696 million.
Watching the money literally fly through the presses, a woman beside me murmured, "So close but so far away." My sentiments exactly. The tour only lasted about 40 minutes, but made quite an impression on me. What I remember best, though, is the steely look in that Treasury police officer’s eyes.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 29, 2002
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
14th and C Streets, SW
Washington, District of Columbia 20228
Attraction | "Stamp of Approval: The National Postal Museum"
Stamp enthusiasts and those interested in the historical role of the U.S. mail should seek out the National Postal Museum a few blocks northeast of the Mall. Housed in the lower level of the magnificent Beaux Arts-style Old City Post Office just across from Union Station, the museum has any number of lively interactive displays vying for attention. It’s a great place to take kids, who invariably grasp the innate appeal of stamps. However, the museum cleverly presents postal history within the larger framework of American history, so that visitors come away with a better understanding of the vital role the Postal Service has played since Benjamin Franklin’s day.
Descending the escalator to the museum’s spacious atrium, the visitor is surrounded by stagecoaches, railway cars, antique mail trucks and swooping antique biplanes. Curiously, though these conveyances are immobile, they somehow transmit the excitement of the constant movement of the mail more effectively than a kinetic display would. Entrances to exhibits as diverse as the role of the mail during the Klondike gold rush and the story of the "duck stamps" series branch off seemingly in every direction. Who would have thought that the Postal Service had such a colorful history?
The challenges the fledgling Postal Service faced were daunting. From the first postal routes that followed East Coast Indian trails to the expansion westward and the era (surprisingly brief, I learned) of the Pony Express, the development of the postal system reflected the restless, diverse nation, binding it together by providing an essential conduit for communication. At one point, for example, the Postal Service faced the logistic problems inherent in reaching far-flung rural communities, often operating at a deficit. (Hey, doesn’t that sound familiar?)
The museum incorporates all sorts of gee-whiz electronic contrivances into the displays. Unfortunately, some of the interactive gadgetry is not fully operational (not that the youngest visitors care; they’re content just pushing buttons). A spiffy Pitney-Bowles mail sorting machine fails to deliver a promised personalized letter, for example.
The most impressive displays, however, are decidedly low-tech. The heart of the museum is the more than 55,000 stamps from the U.S. and around the world, one of the world’s largest philatelic collections. Much of it is viewable on pull-out frames, while special exhibits in the gallery’s "Rarities Vault" are devoted to such oddities as inverted stamps and the stamp sketches done by Franklin D. Roosevelt, an enthusiastic stamp collector.
Before leaving the museum, I stop at the stamp store and buy a sheet of stamps with lavish illustrations of carnivorous plants – the perfect thing for when I write back to Vera in Russia.
The National Postal Museum
2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E.
Washington, District of Columbia 20002
Attraction | "The Pen's Excellencie: Folger Shakespeare Library"
In a sad coincidence, Henry Folger died a mere three days after the cornerstone for his library was laid in 1930. He and his wife had after much consideration decided to build the library in Washington as "a gift to the American people." Emily faithfully carried out their plan after Henry's death.
Located only a few blocks from the Library of Congress, the Folger is actually administered by the Trustees of Amherst College, Henry Folger's alma mater. Folger had wanted the library to resemble a Tudor mansion but was overuled by the local Planning Commission, so he settled on a Greek Revival exterior with Art Deco touches.
The restrained exterior gives little hint of the magnificent Tudor interior, with its main room a replica of an Elizabethan great hall, with dark oak panelling from tiled floor to elaborately plastered ceiling. But is it what is ranged around the room in the glass cases that evokes true astonishment.
The exhibit on display during my last visit was "The Pen's Excellencie: Treasures from the Manuscript Collection." While the common theme was a connection with Shakespeare, the manuscripts were surprisingly varied. One case devoted to Mark Twain's essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" held his characteristically carefully-edited manuscript. James Boswell's commonplace book, with the notes that he had transcribed as a precocious ten year old, was in another. The regally sprawling signatures of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth graced several documents. I drifted from case to case, dreamily: John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot… even A.A. Milne. Most delightful to me, the manuscript of Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," long a favorite.
The docent-led weekend tours are wonderfully informative, not to mention that they offer a peep at the private Reading Room and entry to Emily Folger's personal study, which contains a famous painting of Elizabeth I. It struck me that the entire library, masonry to manuscripts, was one incomparable literary shrine. Anyone with even an ember of literary passion should visit the Folger at least once in a lifetime.
Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, District of Columbia 20003
The Library of Congress is a juggernaut. Over 31,000 items arrive at the Library each day; some 7,000 are incorporated into the permanent collection. The world's largest library contains more than 100 million items in 450 languages. This Brobdingnagian institution is housed in three enormous buildings, with a staff of about 5,000. It's almost incomprehensible.
Yet pause for a minute to return to 1800, when the seat of government was transferred from Philadelphia to the new capital, Washington, and the Library was first established. The library, originally for the sole use of Congress, was a no-frills affair. The first books, 740 of them, arrived from London in 1801 and were housed in the Capitol.
In 1814, the British invaded Washington, burning the Capitol building and the small library in the process. Retired President Thomas Jefferson, an avid book collector with the finest library in the country, stepped forward and offered his collection to Congress. It is hard to imagine, but Congress actually hestitated, objecting that Jefferson's library contained controversial material, such as "immoral" French writers and philosophers. After four months of angry Congressional debate, the final vote on the matter was 81 in favor and 71 opposed. Interestingly, the better-educated members of Congress were more likely to vote against accepting Jefferson's offer, which perhaps in itself was a validation of Jefferson's well-known advocacy of "the common man."
By accepting Jefferson's 6,487 books, the size of the Library was more than doubled. More importantly, however, it was set upon a new course. In accepting Jefferson's books, Congress tacitly subscribed to his all-embracing philosophy, which guides the Library to this day.
A visitor to the Library of Congress usually enters the grand Thomas Jefferson Building completed in 1897. The magnificent interior, with its soaring vaulted ceilings, marble columns, mosaic floors, and ornate murals, was a decidedly American undertaking - something of a political statement in the European-besotted Gilded Age. While the decorative themes may seem decidedly lopsided to the modern visitor - scarcely acknowledging non-Western cultures - they are remarkably beautiful.
On my first visit to the Library (I must sadly advise that there is little hope of taking it all in on a single visit), I joined a guided tour shuffling herd-like through the halls for the simple reason that only tour groups are taken in to view the wondrous main reading room. On a second, more leisurely visit, I sat resting on a bench outside the "American Treasures" exhibit, contemplating the multitude of literary and philosophical quotations adorning the walls.
I asked the security guard standing nearby, "Do all these quotations ever make you curious about the people who wrote them? Does sitting here inspire you to read?"
The guard smiled ruefully. "No, can't say that it does. But I like looking at all the quotes. There are some real good ones."
There sure are.
Jefferson's Legacy: The Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave, SE
Washington, D.C., United States 20540
Attraction | "Zen in the City: The Sackler and Freer Galleries"
Not many tourists realize it, but there’s a whole miniature world to explore in a three-level subterranean complex of museums below the Enid Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle. Enter any of the museums at street level and visit all four interconnecting areas: The National Museum of African Art, The Dillon S. Ripley Center (housing occasional expositions), the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the Freer Gallery of Art. On a hot day, this can be a real boon, not to mention that these places are seldom crowded even during peak season. Admittedly, the Asian and African art housed in these collections has less draw than, say, the two-ton African elephant in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum. However, I make it a point to visit one of the delightful "underground museums" every time I visit the Mall.
Recently, I went to see a much-heralded new exhibit at the Sackler Gallery, "The Adventures of Hamza", and found I had the exhibit practically to myself. And what a show it was! In the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned vast artistic projects, one of which was over 1,200 illustrated folios devoted to tales of Hamza, the Muslim hero whose adventures are central to Islamic storytelling.
Now, I will confess that while I like Islamic art that I knew little about the Mughal dynasty and even less about Hamza. I was so beguiled by the 61 folios in the exhibit, however, that I spent well over an hour eagerly reading each one’s description. The manuscripts, unlike Persian miniatures, are atypically large and are flamboyant not only in subject matter but also in color and composition. I can honestly say I’d never seen anything quite like them. Before leaving the Sackler, I stopped at its irresistible museum shop and indulged in a little Mughal mania, scooping up two books on Mughal art, several prints of my favorite Hamza paintings, and even some Sufi devotional music.
My head still swimming from the visual Hamza feast, I wasn’t yet finished with Asian art for the day. Adjoining the Sackler (and administered by a shared staff) is my favorite Mall museum, the Freer Gallery. Now, there are many things I love about the Freer, but the thing relevant to this discussion of paper objects is the Freer’s fine collection of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and scroll paintings. Of all the cultures in the world, I suspect the Chinese and Japanese have the strongest appreciation for the paper arts. Happily, at the Freer the collection is displayed with an unfailing sense of placement, lighting, and balance. Objects seem detached, floating in their own space, yet simultaneously resonating with the surrounding objects. After experiencing the dizzying richness of the Hamza exhibit, a few moments contemplating the "Year of the Horse" display restored my mental equilibrium.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
1050 Independence Ave Sw
Washington, DC 20560
Attraction | "An Odyssey in Print: The Smithsonian Libraries"
Tucked off in a small corner of the immense Smithsonian National Museum of American History is a quiet, dimly lit room. Few of the thousands of visitors streaming through the museum daily pause to consider the exhibit within, "An Odyssey in Print: Adventures in the Smithsonian Library." Most are too intent in their search for Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves or Dorothy's ruby slippers to give the small exhibit a second glance. Alas, they're missing perhaps their sole opportunity to glimpse what lies at heart of this vast institution: the Smithsonian's twenty-two research libraries.
The Smithsonian is sometimes fondly referred to as "America's Attic," with over 142 million objects in its collection. While only (only?) 1.5 million of these objects are books, the libraries' holdings are equalled in their breadth and depth by their historical importance. The collections are particularly well-developed in the traditional strengths of the Smithsonian: natural history, the history of science and technology, anthropology, art, and decorative arts. Nothing is added to the collection without carefully considering its merits.
While physical access to the various Smithsonian libraries is restricted to museum staff and pre-approved researchers, a great deal of the collection is available through an ambitious online library. Still, the uncredentialed bibliophile longs to cast eyes on the real books, not content with those pale imitations rendered in pixels. Happily, the Smithsonian showcases some of the libraries' gems, displaying them in rotation in a small exhibit space just outside the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.
The "Odyssey in Print" exhibit takes as its theme the journey all scientists, inventors, and artists undertake as they embark on personal odysseys of discovery. Arrayed throughout the room are glass cases containing books, manuscripts, and ephemera divided into three broad themes: Journeys over Land and Sea, Journeys of the Mind, and Journeys of the Imagination. Felicitous juxtapositions abound in the display. A spaceman aiming a ray-gun at insect-like space aliens in a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century pop-up book from the 1930's lies beside a copy of First on the Moon signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Pasteur's microsope and a first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species keep company. Ptolemy, the Wright Brothers, Jules Verne, Linnaeus, Kepler, Newton, Goddard, Lindhberg… whispers from such illustrious mental voyagers seem to float through the room, as if escaping their glass sarcophagi to mingle in a gentle susurration of thought.
The "Odyssey" exhibit runs through December 2003 and consists of a rotating "three-part expedition." The items currently on display illustrate how the world has been imagined and perceived as Europeans and Americans pushed the boundaries of what is imagined into the realm of what is known, producing books that shook the foundations of science and launched humankind on trajectories of wonder.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW