Week 10: United States National Arboretum

Arboretum Mission: To serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment.

I had a rare Saturday off today, and I spent two hours of it exploring the US National Arboretum with a friend. We did not see the entire arboretum, but I know I’ll want to come back another time to see what it looks like in the spring and to visit the parts we missed.

After spending time in the gift shop, the Friendship Garden, the Power Plants exhibit, the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and the National Herb Garden, we stopped to rest and take pictures at the National Capitol Columns. It was here that we sat by a small fountain while two children ran back and forth between the fountain and the reflecting pool. And it was here that my friend remarked, “The arboretum is so wholesome!”

Reflecting pool at the United States National Arboretum

As we watched the families nearby, the smiling young children and smiling dogs, the word wholesome seemed right. Certainly, the place is family-friendly. There were no “The content in this exhibit may be too graphic for children” signs (or places where there should have been such signs). We were surrounded by sunshine, flowers, fall foliage, and plants with interesting smells for humans and canines. There is a Youth Garden, and the website suggests an itinerary for kids.

Dictionary.com gives the following definition for wholesome:


1. conducive to moral or general well-being; salutary; beneficial: wholesome recreation; wholesome environment.

2. conducive to bodily health; healthful; salubrious: wholesome food; wholesome air; wholesome exercise.

3. suggestive of physical or moral health, especially in appearance.

4. healthy or sound.

The arboretum fits the first two definitions (I’ll ignore the last two, which would better apply to people than places). It is a place “conducive to bodily health,” with its fresh air, its trails for exercise, and its nutrition-themed programming in the Youth Garden.

National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum

As for “moral or general well-being,” the arboretum offers benches for contemplation in serene garden settings, learning opportunities, and catalysts for socializing as well as spiritual reflection. In the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, I learned that “while writing poetry or painting a scroll, the scholar could also look out upon his penjing – a landscape planted in a tray – for inspiration.”

But wait. Don’t all museums – or at least, all good museums – provide opportunities for learning, reflecting, and socializing? Can a racy but thought-provoking sculpture, or a sobering exhibit on the realities of war, also be good for us (adults), even as they initially cause us discomfort? Here, too, we are educated, and perhaps inspired to discuss and act.

Whether they bring us inner peace or challenge us to think about war, whether or not some galleries are inappropriate for children, I do think museums are good for people. The United States National Arboretum is also notably wholesome in that nice, innocent, family-friendly connotation normally associated with the word. I hope the children enjoyed the fountains and flowers as much as I did.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Photos, Weekly Museum Visits Part II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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