Back and Forth at Farragut North

The thought of K Street (and its Metro stop, Farragut North) conjures up images of law firms and lobbyists. It is a world of Keurigs, conference rooms, and consultants, where the fast casual restaurants on every block and the food trucks lining the perimeter of Farragut Square offer quick $9 lunches to throngs of people. You should never stand on the left of the escalator in any Metro station, but especially not Farragut North, where all those people in suits have somewhere they need to be. I have used this Metro station frequently, for internships, job interviews, and temp assignments.

National Geographic Museum

National Geographic Museum

An area so famed for its identity as a hub of quintessential white-collar DC workplaces might not seem like an obvious choice of a destination to visit for leisure. But there are reasons for an out-of-town visitor, or locals on their day off, to hang out here.

For one thing, the people-watching can be fascinating. There is certainly no shortage of people ascending from the three entrances to the Metro station. A person with several minutes and several dollars to spare can buy a meal from a food truck, sit on a bench in Farragut Square, and watch the crowds of individuals go by. Farragut Square also has its eponymous statue in the center; this tribute to Union admiral David G. Farragut might be of interest to Civil War buffs.

Then there’s the quiet and beautiful Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, which I have written about here. Visitors can take a self-guided tour to learn about the church’s history and religious art.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

Finally, there are two museums directly across the street from each other that offer different-sized lenses on history. I enjoy the juxtaposition, the way a visitor can go back and forth on M Street to visit both the National Geographic Museum and the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

The National Geographic Museum’s exhibits examine, collectively, the whole history and natural history of the whole world. In recent years, the museum has put on exhibitions on topics such as gold in Peru, terra cotta warrior statues from a tomb in China, a slave ship taken over by pirates when it journeyed from London to the Caribbean to Cape Cod, and birds of paradise in New Guinea. Outside the museum is a pleasant courtyard (another potential place to eat that food truck lunch), with rotating photography exhibits on the outside of the building.

Across the street from this internationally-focused museum is the Sumner School, which has a localized and specialized focus. Specifically, the school-turned museum educates the public about the history of public education in DC. When I visited a few years ago, I saw exhibits on the school system’s extracurricular activities and student life in decades past, as well as an exhibit about Adoph Cluss, the architect who designed the 1872 building.

These two museums together exemplify DC’s role as a city of national and international institutions, with a rich local history of its own.

Farragut North is on the Red Line.

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A Labyrinth to Enter at Metro Center

I recently achieved my goal of being able to say I have visited every Metrorail station in the DC area’s public transit system. (Every Metro station, that is, until the system opened five new ones on July 26.)

So I have visited 86 Metro stations, and explored the surrounding areas, and in due time I will visit the five stops that recently opened up on the west side of the new Silver Line, for a total of 91 stations.

There are Metro stations that have a half-dozen (or more!) museums within a one-mile radius, and there are Metro stations that have another Metro station located a few blocks away in every direction. At some Metro stations, you can ride the escalator into a neighborhood teeming with nightlife, or fast casual lunch restaurants, or murals, or classrooms, or offices, or some combination of the above. There are others where you are more likely to find boarded-up buildings or massive parking garages. Nevertheless, I set out with optimism that there is something interesting everywhere.

In the middle of it all is Metro Center, the multi-line, multi-entrance station in downtown DC. You cannot go too far from Metro Center and still have Metro Center be the closest station to where you are.

The blocks surrounding Metro Center have never seemed as hip as neighboring Galleryplace, where the busy, noisy, colorful 7th Street has museums and restaurants and bars and the Verizon Center, but there is plenty to see at Metro Center too. I have written before about Ford’s Theatre, which is a museum and a theater, as well as National Museum of Women in the Arts, where I have seen museum theater.

Labyrinth at Church of the Epiphany

Labyrinth at Church of the Epiphany

Another site worth visiting near Metro Center is the Church of the Epiphany. It is not necessarily a museum, but it does have historical significant. Built in 1844, the Episcopal parish was attended by both Jefferson Davis (regularly; he rented a pew) and Abraham Lincoln (at least once, for a funeral). The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. With its Gothic Revival architecture and stained glass windows, it is also a place of simple artistic beauty.

The reason for my occasional visits is the labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used around the world, through a good chunk of human history, for their healing and meditative effects. They can be found in a variety of places, including houses of worship, hospitals and other health-related sites, parks, and schools. A small number of other Metro stations also have public labyrinths nearby.

A labyrinth is one thing, at least that Metro Center has and Galleryplace (as far as I can tell) doesn’t.

Metro Center is on the Red, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines.


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Two Cultures, Five Senses: Folklife Festival 2014

Another year of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival came to an end at the beginning of this month, this year featuring China and Kenya. Like other years, the festival immersed visitors in colors and textures and sound and the heat of a crowded National Mall in the summer.

Here are some highlights, brought to you by the five senses:

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Sights: on one Sunday, I saw a Chinese dragon dance; the next Sunday, I saw a lion dance, and a performance on the Dragon-Lion Cart by Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe. I turned to my friend and confessed I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference between lions and dragons. What I had assumed were lions on the Dragon-Lion Cart, she had assumed were dragons. What visual cues should we be relying on? I wondered. My guess (confirmed, at least, by a cursory Internet search) was that lions have four legs while dragons have a lot more. Meanwhile, the golden yellow creatures reminded me of the fur of a lion. In any event, all three performances were amazing to watch.

Sounds: at the Ngoma Stage in the Kenya area, I caught part of the Choral Waves and Kenyan Classics performances. The artists who performed included Wesonga, Sengekwo, Ayub Ogada, DK Wamaria, and John Nzenze and Akwabi.

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Textures: there were gorgeous Chinese textiles that I would have loved to touch, but I obeyed the signs like a good visitor. However, I did get to touch Kenyan giraffe sculptures made out of recycled flip-flops.

Tastes: even though it means occasionally waiting in long lines, a big draw of the festival every year is the food. In the China section, I tried vegetable lo mein, vegetable dumplings, and Tsingtao Lager. From the Kenyan concessions, I bought a rice and salad dish called Pilau and Kachumbari, spicy vegetable samosas, and Tusker lager.

Smells: while watching a Chinese cooking demonstration, the speaker said that the tofu being used was called “smelly tofu” because of its strong aroma. As soon as he said it, a man in the audience approached the counter and asked to smell the tofu. The speaker told him that audience members could smell the tofu after it was cooked, which of course, everyone wanted to do now that this man’s behavior had piqued everyone’s curiosity. All I could smell was the lemon sauce, though, not the tofu itself.

What were your favorite parts of the Folklife Festival this year?

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Playground Themes and Childhood Dreams, Revisited

This weekend, I set out to explore the area around the Virginia Square Metro station and see something in the neighborhood other than the George Mason University Law Library, where I spent many long hours last summer writing case briefs, learning new words, and fighting with photocopiers.

I visited Arlington Arts Center, a historic site that now houses art gallery space and classrooms. While walking through the building, I learned about the Chronoecologists, who set out to artificially simulate experiences like sunsets, sea breezes, and the sound of the ocean and, through time travel, take these simulations to future times when humans will have destroyed the environment and its beautiful natural phenomena. (I don’t think my explanation does the concept justice. I am not sure I understand it fully.)

In other galleries, I saw amazing photograms of mushrooms; Tiffany windows that were once part of Arlington National Cemetery; and a book of photos that each had one cute dog and one naked woman, which, admittedly, I also didn’t really understand.

Spielschiff, outside Arlington Arts Center

Spielschiff, outside Arlington Arts Center

The foyer of the building is currently filled with the work of Phillip Adams: black and white drawings of mountains featuring one or a few full-color additions like a flagpole, a Ferris wheel, and playground equipment. In front of one large sketch is an actual bright red swing (and a sign advising visitors not to sit in it). In other words, it is an example of playground equipment in a work of art.

Outside, there is a permanent piece of artwork that is also a playground for children – Spielschiff (or “Play Ship”) by Bonifatius Stirnburg. The “interactive play sculpture” is a ship-themed piece of climbing equipment with a ladder and crow’s nest among its parts. It is yet another example of the themed playgrounds topic that I recently explored.

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Playground Themes and Childhood Dreams

In working toward my goal of visiting, and exploring the area surrounding, every Metro station in the WMATA system, I’ve done some research on what interesting things can be found in each neighborhood. (I’m convinced there’s at least something interesting everywhere.) When I looked at online maps of Marvin Gaye Park Trail near the Capitol Heights Metro, I learned that I could expect a trail running mostly along Watts Branch (a tributary stream from the Anacostia River), a few visual art pieces in tribute to the musical artist who hailed from that part of DC, and a series of small playgrounds for little ones to enjoy.

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

I had not known, until I actually walked the trail, that a few of these playgrounds would be nature-themed, using adorable play equipment from the company GameTime’s PlayTrails line of products. In the playgrounds I saw, the shorter pieces of climbing equipment are a frog and a butterfly, the taller climbers and poles are evergreen trees and cattails, and the seats are leaves and mushrooms. Each playground includes a sign containing natural history facts and suggested play activities that combine movement with conceptualizing individual parts of nature.

A little further along the trail (in the direction away from the Capitol Heights Metro) is Planters Grove, an homage to the peanut (and its sponsor, Planters Nuts, owned by Kraft Foods). Here, the column-surrounded park itself, a planter, and a bench are peanut-shaped.

A person hiking the Marvin Gaye Park Trail could pack a lunch and eat a salad of lettuce and spinach leaves while sitting on a leaf, some mushrooms while sitting on a mushroom, and a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on a peanut.

Playgrounds can be found everywhere, and for good reason, but I’m especially enchanted by tot lots and play areas with themed equipment that reinforces the content area of a surrounding park or museum. For other examples, the National Zoo has play structures that allow kids to crawl through tunnels like a prairie dog, and the College Park Aviation Museum has an airplane-themed playground outside the building.

An Internet search for images of quirky or unique playgrounds yields pictures of anthropomorphized trees, tilted houses, giant spiders and small dinosaurs, fruits and vegetables, ships and lighthouses, and lots of bright colors. Unsurprisingly, there are Pinterest boards devoted to the topic.

This is not to say that a more standard playground can’t lend itself to the limitless bounds of children’s imaginations. (In my preschool teaching days, I once saw some three- and four-year-olds use the school playground for an elaborate scheme that combined the Passover story with kittens). However, a natural or cultural site with a specific content area can make its subject relevant to its younger visitors by themed play opportunities, such as toys inside the building and playgrounds outdoors.

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Don’t Rush to Oppose a Women’s History Museum

Just before Mother’s Day, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of a feasibility study on the prospect of a privately-funded women’s history museum on or near the National Mall. To be sure, support for the bill was both wide and bipartisan. Yet a few vocal critics have made the news with comments that make me want to sit the naysayers down and explain to them what a museum is.

Talk show host and, apparently, self-described satirist Rush Limbaugh declared:

We already have, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how many museums for women all over the country. They are called malls.

Limbaugh’s logic appears to rest on the idea that women like to go to malls and, thus, malls are women’s history museums. By that line of reasoning, any place where people congregate is a museum. Never mind such technicalities as the conservation of objects, development of exhibits, or education of visitors.

But maybe I am misrepresenting Limbaugh’s position. Maybe “a place where people congregate” is a broader definition of museum than Limbaugh means. Perhaps Limbaugh is saying that malls are women’s museums because malls are places where women like to buy goods and services, and therefore a museum for a specific audience is a place where that audience likes to make purchases.

Limbaugh then said that instead of using the word mall, “Hey, I could have said brothel, but I didn’t.”

So if malls are women’s museums because they are places where women like to make purchases, then… isn’t the typical brothel a men’s museum in Limbaugh’s world? In any case, Limbaugh’s argument that we don’t need a museum because we have [insert any other kind of building here] in the world reduces the word museum to meaninglessness.

US Capitol

The United States Capitol, where the House of Representatives voted on a feasibility study for a National Women’s History Museum and where only a small percentage of statues honor female historical figures

Meanwhile, newsreaders also get to hear from a House Member who voted against the bill. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is concerned, as the Washington Post article put it, “that there are no assurances it won’t become [in Bachmann’s words] ‘an ideological shrine to abortion.’ ”

She is correct! In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of museums are built without specific assurances that they won’t become ideological shrines to abortion. I hope anyone who wants to build a museum about women’s history or medicine, or for that matter, any topic at all, will include specific language in its founding documents that the museum will not become an ideological shrine to abortion. Otherwise, what assurance do we have? Parents certainly don’t want to take their toddlers to the local train museum or aquarium and be unpleasantly surprised by an altar to the abortion gods when they walk in the door.

In reality, museums are neither so broadly defined as to include any old place where people gather and shop, nor so narrowly defined that every topic they touch upon is “ideologically enshrined.” If a women’s history museum is done right, it will present the good and the bad, and the diversity of opinion and experience that American women have held.

One argument that I have heard against a women’s museum or any museum devoted to a specific heritage is that instead of building separate museums, everyone’s history should be woven into the National Museum of American History. And I have seen varying degrees of commitment to this approach, from genuine belief and efforts to have a greater variety of perspectives showcased in NMAH and other general history museums, to being dismissive of any narrative other than the one in the textbooks and the monuments.

I do not see mutual exclusivity in working to make an existing museum more inclusive and varied in the stories it tells, and building a new museum that, right away and with the intentionality of its very mission, will offer visitors a chance to see what they might be missing in the older museums. Additionally, specialty museums abound because people have interests into which they want to delve deeper. Hence, there are transportation museums; there are also train museums and boat museums and plane museums. There are large and small museums, old and new museums, art and history and science museums, and there is room for a great variety. (Note, in case you missed it: the proposed women’s history museum will not be funded by taxpayer money, so the “That’s all good and well but why should I have to help pay for it?” argument does not work here.)

P.S. In somewhat of a twist, while Michele Bachmann is worried that the National Women’s History Museum will celebrate abortion, the museum’s website is busy celebrating Michele Bachmann and motherhood (among its many content areas). Bachmann was included in the online exhibit Profiles in Motherhood in 2011, which she considered an honor at the time.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, Americans can celebrate Mother’s Day by bringing their moms to the National Women’s History Museum. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mother figures out there!

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Chytrid Fungus Is a Modern Plague

A few weeks ago, I attended a humanist Passover seder. As we read the haggadah that had been adapted for our contemporary humanist community, we called out modern plagues as well as the traditional list, leading me to ask: what is so bad about frogs?

Others explained it to me: There were too many of them! The pharaoh woke up with frogs in his bed! They were raining from the sky! Okay, I wouldn’t like that either.

Nowadays, there are not enough frogs. The National Zoo, along with similar sites and organizations, aims to teach visitors about the chytrid fungus that is decimating frog and other amphibian species. While researchers from the Smithsonian rescue and study frogs in Panama, displays in the Zoo’s Amazonia exhibit educate people about the tiny poison dart frogs hiding in the bromeliad plant, and the risks they face from chytrid fungus and other environmental risks such as climate change and loss of natural habitat.

Poison Dart Frog at the National Zoo

Poison Dart Frog at the National Zoo

This is one thing I love about holidays: helping humans understand the plagues and triumphs of the past, the events worth commemorating and celebrating. This is one thing I love about museums and zoos: helping humans understand the plagues and triumphs of the past as well as those affecting our own world, and what we can do about them.

To all who celebrated Passover, I hope it was lovely and meaningful, and may we all eradicate the plagues of our time!

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