Smithsonian 101

This journal offers tidbits about my favorite Smithsonian attractions. The Smithsonian proudly claims to be the "world's largest museum complex." Considering that most of these fabulous attractions are also free, you have a formula for what is perhaps the best of all possible bargains for museum aficionados.

Lessons from the National Zoo

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on August 2, 2010

Many visitors to the DC area are unaware that Washington’s National Zoo (or more formally, the National Zoological Park) is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Located within the boundaries of Rock Creek Park in northwest DC, the 163-acre zoo complex is well away from the hustle and bustle of National Mall. Of course, being part of the Smithsonian means that this is no ordinary zoo—it is just the public face of a much larger organization dedicated to advancing knowledge about the animal kingdom and finding ways to save endangered species.

For kids of all ages, however, it really is all about the animals—with the National Zoo serving up subliminal biology lessons at every turn. Our most recent visit with the Grands covered no more than a quarter of the complex, and we were there for several hours. We focused on the big cats, the lowland gorillas and other primates, the elephants and hippos--and of course the pandas.

Our first trip to the zoo back during the early 1970s was for the expressed purpose of introducing our young daughters to panda watching, which was then a very new sport. The People’s Republic of China had given Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling to the United States after Richard Nixon’s call on Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, and Washington has been in love with pandas ever since. It was thus a pleasure to hand that fascination on to our grandchildren—just imagine: two generations of American children for whom pandas have been flesh and blood, not images on a printed page.

If anything, the gorillas were even more a hit with the Grands than the pandas. They were intrigued by the family compound that clearly included couples, a babe in arms, and the heavily grayed gorilla grandparents. The relationship between humans and gorillas was easy to sense—anthropology lessons this time—and the hierarchy within the gorilla community was also easy to discern: the Silverback male was clearly in charge, and the babe and his mother apparently had special privileges. Joining gorilla society seemed tempting to some of our charges—and even feasible given the open-pit style of their compound. Human grandparents found themselves keeping sharp eyes peeled, as it was clear the gorillas watched us as closely as we watched them.

The nearby orangutan highway also caught and held Grand attention. The six orangutans at the National Zoo may choose to travel between the Great Ape House and the so-called Think Tank using the O Line—an aerial pathway consisting of metal towers and overhead cables ("O" for "overhead"?). The freedom of movement for the orangutans is more limited than it looks, but what an illusion! After all, where else can kids wander about while watching orangutans swing overheard?

Elephants and hippos are always winners with kids—with opportunities for low-key geography and language lessons thrown in for good measure. OK, kids, how do know which elephants are from India and which are from Africa? The ears have it, of course. One hippopotamus plus one hippopotamus equal two hippopotami--or is it two hippopotamuses? What do you think? And why do their teeth look so much like round pegs?

The grammar rules for big cats are easier, and we didn’t get a chance to see their teeth. In late morning and early afternoon, they tend toward relaxation under the shade trees of their compounds. Even in such a quiet state, the Grands aren’t tempted to think of them as giant kitty cats—lions and tigers, oh my!

On our visit with the Grands, we failed utterly in seeing all of the more than 400 species on the display. We missed the anteaters, the otters, and the beavers. We missed the eagles and the flamingos. We missed the bears. We missed the giraffes, who were having their house redone and thus had been send off to Florida—on a beach holiday, no doubt! But we had a great time, and we’ll return—next week, if all goes as planned.

Like other attractions within the Smithsonian family, admittance to the National Zoo is free. Parking, however, is not: $10 for up to an hour, $15 for up to 2 hours, and $20 for a anything beyond--and believe me, you’ll spend enough time to pay the maximum rate. Members of FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) park free, so if you live in the area and are likely to come more than once per year, consider joining.

Park amenities also include gift shops and food aplenty, with fast food, snacks, and sandwichs dominating the food offerings. On hot days, the zoo sets up misting stations, offering visitors the chance to cool down without getting seriously wet. One gift option our Grands loved was the open-air facility for Create-a-Critter. Each of the three came away with his or her very own stuffed animal, lovingly "created" by their very own hands and representing endangered species within the animal kingdom--such a deal!

- BawBaw
Smithsonian National Zoological Park (The National Zoo)
3001 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, D.C., 20008
(202) 673-4800

A Grand Temple to Nature

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on July 26, 2010

Himself and Yours Truly have been visiting the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for nearly four decades. Over time we have escorted tours of this grand edifice with children, parents, out-of-town friends and extended family, Girl Scout troops, and now grandchildren. Not even the most blasé museum-goer can fail to be impressed—and the WOW factor starts with the architecture and the setting.

NMNH occupies a prime piece of real estate along Washington’s National Mall. With one entrance on Constitution Avenue and another on Madison Drive, it has a prestigious position between the West Building of the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American History. The Madison Drive entrance features a "small" Classical portico with fluted Corinthian columns. Passing through the entrance and into the museum—and through the obligatory security screen, of course—visitors emerge into the grand Rotunda. Where the altar should be in a Classical temple, all eyes are drawn to a magnificent African elephant with its trunk raised high above its head—an elephant gathered for the museum as a specimen during the days before such methods garnered widespread disapproval. This is a temple to Nature, and from the first steps into the building, visitors are constantly reminded of that fact.

Galleries are generally topical--including Mammals, the Ocean, Human Origins, Fossils, Western Cultures--and most of the exhibit halls lead toward or away from the Rotunda on the museum’s two main levels. The first and second floors are connected by elevators and by two rather grand staircases. The ground floor, which is directly accessed from the Constitution Avenue and connects to the First floor by escalators and elevators, houses the auditorium, café, and two gift shops. The museum also has an IMAX theater.

Over time, NMNH has experienced a number of renovations and rearrangements, but by and large the permanent exhibits have been updated rather than changed. Consistent favorites from our visits have been the dinosaurs (kids of all ages stand in awe over these ancient creatures), gems (my younger daughter has actively coveted the Hope Diamond for most of her 30-odd years), and the Insect Zoo (complete with the opportunity to hold a giant cockroach for South America). The permanent Ocean exhibit is also popular, particularly the life-sized fiberglass blue whale suspended from the ceiling.

The floor plan of the museum is generally easy to follow in that everything eventually leads back to the Rotunda. Still, the museum covers most of three city blocks and with so many tempting attractions, in a building so large, it’s easy to get separated. It’s an excellent idea to set a prearranged meeting point for members of your party. The museum is generally crowded, especially during the summer and on weekends, so plan your trip well enough not to spend too much of your time looking for one another (voice of experience, that).

Special exhibits are often a special draw, especially for old-timers like us who have been there often. Two such recent exhibits have been particularly attractive: an outstanding display of orchids from the nearby National Botanic Garden (both Himself and Yours Truly are suckers for orchids), and a fantastic display on butterflies. We had the Grands in tow for the butterfly exhibit, which featured a delightful enclosed area full of live flowers and butterflies--under an extraordinary environmental system to simulate the natural light and humidity favored by those lovely and fragile creatures. The children were fascinated—and so were we.

Unlike most major natural history museums, admission to NMNH is free. Many of the special exhibits, however, are not. If memory serves, it cost our party of five (two adults and three children) about $25 to tour the butterfly exhibit. (The orchid exhibit was free.) An IMAX visit can also set the wallet back a bit. As for the onsite "café," it’s no bargain—though being "onsite" counts for a lot. The café consists largely of a series of buffet-style stations and offers mostly fast food options in a largely self-serve environment. During our most recent visit, it cost our party of five about $70 to dine on pizza, chicken strips and fries, mac-n-cheese, and oversized cookies. Healthier options are few and far between, but they can be found—apples and simple salads joined the fast food staples at our table. Add to these expenses the obligatory trip through the gift shop for the children, and a free visit to the museum can become fairly expensive.

All in all, a visit to the National Museum of Natural History really is a natural high. Kids and adults alike can be seen uttering exclamations of wide-eyed wonder. The exhibits are carefully thought out, with touches of whimsy to be found for those who wish to find them. In the anthropological sections, the old insensitivities to culture—especially Native American cultures—have declined as curators seem determined to find better ways to touch the past without offending the present. For those who love continuous learning, NMNH is both a valuable resource and an important example. And for those who just love seeing the wonder and excitement on their children’s faces, this museum fits the bill. Boredom simply isn’t an option!

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC
(202) 633-1000

Doin’ the Smithsonian

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on June 28, 2009

"Saturday I'll do the Smithsonian." So spoke my visiting colleague from our home office in California. He was in town over the weekend and wanted to see a few of the local attractions.

"Wonderful!" I replied. "Which museum do you plan to visit?"

"You know," he said, looking a bit confused, "the Smithsonian Museum."

"Yes," I continued patiently, "but which one?"

The substance of this exchange is all too common. Most people living outside the Washington metropolitan area probably think of the Smithsonian as simply "a museum." In fact, the Smithsonian Institution is a collection of 19 great museums (many, but by no means all, are located along the National Mall), plus a number of educational and research centers. Add to that the National Zoo and dozens of affiliate museums and other organizations nationwide.

Okay, I admit it: my little family is absolutely smug about its intimacy with the Smithsonian. We cut our museum-going teeth under the guidance of its docents. Over the years, the proximity of this national treasure to our home has enriched our lives in countless ways, large and small. Thanks to the Museum of Natural History, for example, our children learned what dinosaurs looked like from the inside out. Moreover, we routinely credit this museum for our younger daughter's abiding fascination with fine jewelry: Almost from infancy, she's been possessed with a mad yearning for the Hope Diamond.

Our girls' visits to the National Gallery of Art taught them the difference between a Monet and a Picasso even before they could read properly. (Note that although the National Gallery is often regarded as part of the Smithsonian, it is separately funded and governed. Officially, it is a Smithsonian "affiliate.") The girls also knew that the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) had the best ice cream parlor in town (alas, now replaced by the Constitution Café)—as well as an opportunity to gander at Fonzie's jacket. They learned about the rich diversity of American culture at the National Folklife Festival, an annual event on the National Mall sponsored by the Smithsonian. And the first zoo they ever visited was the National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian.

As a family, we watched and anticipated as the Smithsonian grew and expanded. We waited impatiently for the opening of the National Air and Space Museum (now with multiple locations), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (again, not directly part of the Smithsonian, but caught in its web by proximity), the wondrous underground complex that comprises the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art and the National Museum of African Art, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, and of course the National Museum of the American Indian.

For all our familiarity and experience with the Smithsonian, none of us would venture so far as to claim that we KNOW this marvelous institution. We know only those parts that have pulled us into their orbit—the parts we love best. At its base, our Smithsonian snobbery rests on the certainty that no individual can ever master it fully. "Harumph," we are likely to intone to the fool-hearty, "the very idea that you can 'do' the Smithsonian on a Saturday!" Not even a lifetime would suffice.

With all this in mind, I took pity on my California colleague’s ignorance and guided him through the Smithsonian’s main Web site—and the site for the National Gallery added for good measure. I pointed out the long list of the Smithsonian’s museums, noting the ones located directly on the National Mall, and warned him to choose no more than two for his first visit. Despite their convenient clustering along the Mall, the various museums are actually separated by a good bit of walking distance.

Finally, I pointed out The Castle, the red sandstone building that was Smithsonian’s original presence on the National Mall and that is now the institution’s Information Center. For anyone who is uncertain as to how to approach the daunting and delightful task of exploring the Smithsonian, the orientation film and a discussion with one of the information specialists at The Castle is a great place to start. The Information Center provides videos and handouts in a several languages and serves as a one-stop shop for details related to special exhibitions and programs Smithsonian-wide.
Smithsonian Institution
900 Jefferson Dr
Washington, D.C., United States, 20013
(202) 633-8700

Modern Art on the Mall

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by BawBaw on July 16, 2009

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is not your average museum. For those open to the idea of "modern art"--that is, accepting the use of an expanded range of media and innovative forms to achieve artistic expression--the Hirshhorn is a great place to experience art as modern drama.

Indeed, this whole process begins with an appreciation for the museum’s structure. Designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft, the Hirshhorn is different from anything else visitors will find along the National Mall. Compared either affectionately or derisively to a "donut," a "drum," or a "spacecraft on the Mall," the museum is built in the round. The "spaceship" analogy refers to the fact that the entire structure (except for the entrance foyer) is lifted above ground level on huge stone stilts. Not only that, it is hollow in the center—or rather the structure encloses a courtyard that contains a large, round fountain placed off-center from the structure itself.

The design of the building accomplishes several complementary purposes. The two gallery floors consist of "concentric galleries" that follow the contours of the building itself. The inner galleries, where small sculptures are displayed, face the interior courtyard. Because the exterior walls of these galleries feature floor-to-ceiling windows, the artwork displayed here can be shown in natural light--a rare occurrence in a major museum. For the outer galleries, away from the windows, the cylindrical shape of the building eliminates the mazelike network of galleries typifying most art museums. Visitors pass from gallery to gallery until they return to the starting point.

Himself and Yours Truly have been fans of the Hirshhorn since it first opened its doors in 1974. I myself am particularly fond of the inner galleries with their collection of modern sculpture. I am awestruck when viewing Degas’s fascination with the female form, Picasso’s endless rebellion against tradition, and Giacometti’s dramatic succession of emaciated figures. I love the sensuality of Matisse, the gentle portraits of couples and families by Moore, and the deceptive simplicity of Brancusi. I also like to relax on one of the comfortable benches scattered through these galleries, allowing myself the quiet pleasure of being surrounded by dozens of examples of some of the finest art of the modern age.

The exhibition area in the museum’s lower (i.e., basement) level is also fascinating. No matter the program, one can expect surprises. The media stream in this temporary exhibit area is plastic—often quite literally—and may include any number of extraordinary features. In the exhibition galleries, I have watched videos while special lighting effects were projected throughout the viewing room, gawked at oversized creations make of heavy knoted ropes and accented with all manner of media (feathers and beads, foil and wood, and bits of torn fabric), and marveled at the black-on-black, three-dimensional creations of Anish Kapoor.

Despite the repeated warnings of "Do Not Touch" that are so familiar in most museums, the art of the Hirshhorn has a way of inviting the visitor to participate, both physically and mentally, as part of the viewing process. This is particularly true in the sculpture garden. The Hirshhorn really has two principal garden areas, both of which are filled with monumental pieces of sculpture: (1) The plaza, which surrounds the museum and is partially bounded by a high wall and hedges to provide a sense of privacy against the bustle on nearby Independence Avenue; and (2) a bi-level garden on the National Mall side of the museum, complete with a fountain and usually offering a welcome sense of solitude.

The "star" of the lawn garden, in my view, is Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower, a graceful steel and cable construction that uses modern materials and techniques to evoke ancient themes. This sculpture that seems to defy gravity is composed of metal pipes held in place by tension and stress. The pipes rise in sets of three, each set decreasing slightly in size and tapering inward as the tower reaches skyward to its full 60-foot height. The pattern of the Needle’s lines changes with the perspective of the viewer. The overall shape is conical, and as one moves around its base, the dominant lines (the pipes) form a kaleidoscope pattern within the structure. But is the view from under the tower that produces the most spectacular effect. By standing inside the space at its lowest level and looking upward, one is startled to see two geometric figures: a hexagon surrounding a hexagram (or Star of David).

The main part of the bi-level garden is, as suggested, several steps down from street level. That being the case, it’s worthwhile to wander around the perimeter, looking down on the garden’s contents and at the few items placed at street level. The sculptures on the lower level simply look different from this vantage point, viewed from above.

Of the masterpieces to be found here, Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais is far and away my favorite. I typically circle this large piece, looking at all the burghers’ faces separately. The sculpture depicts a historical incident from the year 1347. After a year-long siege that left Calais on the verge of starvation, six leading citizens offered themselves to the forces of England's Edward III in exchange for lifting the siege and sparing the city. The burghers were instructed to strip to their breeches, place nooses about their necks, and present themselves at the city gate for execution. As an added token of surrender, they carried with them the keys to the city and its protecting castle. Rodin’s portrayal of this offering is poignant and respectful. The dignity of the burghers in this moment of utter surrender touches something that is inherent in the human spirit--qualities that make this sculpture powerfully intimate.

Visits to this museum are enhanced by the fact that it is rarely as busy as some of its sister galleries along the Mall. This makes for a more relaxed, almost proprietary approach to viewing its treasures. Still, it’s always a good idea to check out the Hirshhorn Web site before a planned visit. Information on temporary exhibits and special events is prominently posted. Whatever your personal favorites among this collection, the Hirshhorn is a good place to explore, to reflect, and simply to be.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Ave SW & 7th St SW
Washington, District of Columbia
(202) 633-1000

A Native Longing Begets "A Native Place"

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by BawBaw on August 11, 2009

In September 2004, the Smithsonian threw a grand party to honor the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). As charter members of the new museum, Himself and Yours Truly were invited to an after-hours reception held as part of the inaugural festivities. The reception included well-stocked food and drink stations on three levels of the museum, including both hard and soft beverages (which one might decently argue against, given the tribes’ experience with alcohol). Menu selections endeavored to present "authentic" foods native to the New World. It was a rare occasion to hobnob Washington-style with lots of folks unaccustomed to such hobnobbery, and we’ll remember the experience fondly. Five years and several visits later, without the hoopla, NMAI still steals the show.

Structure and Landscaping

As everything about NMAI tries to emphasize, this museum has avoided pitfalls that have befallen other programs devoted to the native peoples of the New World. Constructed on the last remaining museum site along the National Mall in conjunction with representatives of native groups, the realization of this strategy began with the structure itself, and with the surrounding landscape. NMAI was always intended to serve as "A Native Place," and its planners spared no effort to meet the challenge.

The museum is built of a warm golden stone that sparkles in the sunlight, like the adobe of a Southwestern pueblo. The stone has been worked into soft curves to resemble the windswept walls of a canyon. Indeed, like the contrast provided by unexpected streams of water in the desert, the museum’s fountain (featuring both worked and natural stone) provides visual and acoustic drama. More like a small river with waterfall than a traditional fountain, the rushing water pulls visitors more completely into the illusion of being in a remote Western canyon. Even the poles intended for banners to advertise museum events look like the vigas of a pueblo.

In front of the museum, facing the Capitol, landscape architects have restored a small patch of the wetlands that once dominated the National Mall. Here one can sit on the retaining wall that both invites and restricts access, and view the Capitol dome above a natural oasis of water and vegetation. The air is punctuated with the calls of birds that have been absent from the Mall for over a century. Overall, the landscaping approximates the natural diversity of the Chesapeake region, with representative areas featuring forest and meadow as well as wetland. This return of "a native place" embodies precisely the symbolism envisioned for NMAI.

Other landscape elements around the museum have sometimes served as garden plots, showcasing crops and agricultural techniques common to native peoples. Designers also included a number of "Grandfather Stones" and an alcove featuring a cardinal marker, which together symbolize the enduring reverence for the environment embodied within Native culture and the remarkable astronomical achievements of pre-Columbian peoples in the Americas.

Inside NMAI

Visitors enter NMAI through double doors of translucent glass etched with pictographs, going through the inevitable security screen, past the information desk with its greetings in many native languages, and into the Potomac chamber. This large circular space dominates the museum. Under a soaring dome with a skylight intended to resemble a smoke hole in an oversized hogan or roundhouse, the designers have created a backdrop for ceremonial performances. Infused with natural light from above and through glass prisms serving as windows, the ceremonial chamber is like no other anywhere--indoors or out. Steps slopping downward provide space for seating, and the slight descent into the Potomac, which is largely encircled by a high screen of woven copper, reproduces much of the symbolism of a kiva (the ceremonial chamber found in Southwestern pueblos). Finally, a circle of burnished stone near the center of the space suggests a fire ring, placed directly under the skylight in the museum’s four-stories-high dome. It could as easily symbolize "sipapu," the umbilical connecting Earth's children to their mother's womb, a concept taken from the creation mythology of the pueblo peoples.

NMAI’s exhibit spaces resemble those of an art museum more than those of a traditional anthropological museum. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, the most important being the designers’ determination to avoid old sins against native communities. In the past--and indeed in the present--the history and culture of Native American peoples have often been presented in a vacuum that disregarded their continuing evolution and diversity. Their secular and religious artifacts, and even their bones, came to be studied and exhibited in a highly offensive manner.

Thousands of wonderful artifacts are on exhibit at NMAI, but this time the "mission" is defined as an effect to celebrate "the lifeways, languages, literature, history, and art of Native Americans." This mission is realized in three permanent exhibit areas: "Our Universes," "Our Peoples," and "Our Lives." Many exhibits use multimedia techniques, including narratives displayed on monitors located throughout these areas, to depict Native culture within a thoroughly modern context that accounts for the unique heritage of dynamic communities. As a result, the sterile delving into native cultures has been replaced by something more akin to what I’ve experienced in small museums created and managed by tribal curators on reservations lands. Touring these exhibits is much like sharing a neighbor’s family mementoes--personal and informative, but based on a mutually accepted right to privacy.

Other exhibit spaces have been devoted to the work of talented native artists. As with artists from other cultures, the contemporary of these artists demonstrate the ability to blend, borrow, and adapt themes and techniques from their own tradition with other influences. The result is spectacular art that is sometimes primitive, sometimes extremely sophisticated, and always exciting.

NMAI’s "Window on Collections" also deserve a quick mention. These spaces are literally windowed walls that feature some aspect of native craft or history, and they are found in the stairway lobbies on the third and fourth levels. For example, the pottery collection features a range of clay pieces from various tribes. Each item can be viewed at close range behind its protective window, with touchscreen monitors provided to access detailed information on its origin and function.

NMAI’s facilities include two theaters, a resource center, a conference center, two workshop areas, and the patrons’ lounge. Two museum shops offer a wide range of choices to visitors: The Chesapeake Museum Store on the ground level has an outstanding collection of fine Native arts and crafts. Prices are high, generally ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. The Roanoke Museum Store on the second level offers books, posters, music, less expensive craft items, and a variety of other merchandise.

Hungry visitors will be pleasantly surprised by the museum’s unique cafeteria. Like the foods served at the NMAI’s inaugural party, menu items served at the Mitsitam ("let’s eat") Café are largely indigenous to the Americas and inspired by Native American tradition. Hence, one can visit Mitsitam and indulge in a pulled buffalo barbeque sandwich, glazed salmon seasoned with juniper, tamales, cornbread made with blue cornmeal, or pumpkin soup. Inspiration may come from anywhere in the New World, and the quality is generally very good, especially when measured against the uninspired burgers and sandwiches offered at most Smithsonian cafeterias.

On "Native American" Versus "American Indian"

One issue that should receive a bit more attention than it does at NMAI is the political correctness of such terms "Native American" and "American Indian." As a child in the Southwest, my Indian (then the accepted term) classmates counted themselves first as members of a particular tribe--Navajo, Sandia, or Apache--and then as Indians, an identity that embraced very nearly all the Native peoples of the New World. (Still, the terms Native Americans, Indigenous peoples, or Aboriginal peoples are slightly more inclusive--since American Indian does not really apply to natives of Alaska and Hawaii.)

The years of my youth extend back beyond the current debate over terminology, but regular trips "home" from the East have underscored that most of the Native Americans/American Indians from the regions I know best still prefer being known by their tribal designations--so much so that a few groups have altered spellings to reflect the pronunciation of their own language (e.g., the Yakima of the Pacific Northwest are now officially the Yakama). Others maintain one identity toward the outside world and a more private group identity. For example, the Navajo proudly identify themselves as Navajo to outsiders, but among themselves, they are the D’ineh--or "the People."

In my experience, this sense of peoplehood and the respect applied thereto are key to dealing responsibly with how to address native peoples. Each "tribe" is in fact a separate sovereign nation with all the requisite trappings of a separate identity. My friends and acquaintances from among these sovereign peoples recognize respect when they encounter it--and in the final analysis, that respect is all they really require.
Smithsonian Institution: National Museum of the American Indian
Fourt Street and Independence Avenue on the National Mall
Washington, DC, 20024
(202) 357-1300

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