So many museums, so little time – Washington, DC

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Metro Rail

Does this man look confused?  For once he isn’t, thanks to the simplicity of the DC Metro system.

Once again our jello-style planning has been tested. Lucky for us, with this lifestyle we can change the course as often as needed to fit our wants and needs.  Prior to our arrival in DC, we had shortened our 10-day stay to a week due to the government shutdown.  But when the government got their act together on our 3rd day here, we changed it back to 10 days.  Even then we knew there’s no way to see everything here in just 10 days, so we prioritized our wish list and went from there.  The Metro system is the way to get into DC, and on four days it was our mode of transportation as we hit the National Mall.  We explored not only the iconic monuments and memorials, but most importantly the re-opened (and free) world class Smithsonian museums.  I promise to post only the highlights of our gawking and learning escapades.

Metro Rail Transit

Metro Rail transit station

Our visit to the US Holocaust Museum was a compelling emotional experience.  We thought we could just breeze through it, but we couldn’t.  It was a sobering visit, and a good place to learn about that dark time in history.  Photography is not allowed, but what struck me the most was the room containing thousands of pairs of the victim’s shoes, and the “tunnel” with pictures of so many of them, which made it very real.  We were drained and exhausted after three hours of intense reading, listening and watching videos.

US Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum

At the Natural History Museum, Steve made sure I got to see the dazzling 45.52-carat Hope Diamond, known for its flawless clarity and rare deep blue color.

Hope Diamond

Hope diamond

The Natural History Museum is a family favorite, but we mostly just checked out the Gem and Mineral collection.  It took hours just to examine the various mesmerizing gems and minerals of all shapes, sizes, colors and forms.

Natural History Museum

Lobby, Natural History Museum

We have already been to several Air and Space museums – the McMinville Air Museum in Oregon, the National Naval Aviation Museum, in Florida and the Space Center in Texas – but of course the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is the granddaddy of them all!  With Steve’s passion for all things that fly, this one was at the top of his list.  Although he was stationed in DC during the early 80’s and had been to this museum several times back then, so many changes and upgrades have occurred that he hardly recognized the place.

Apollo 11 Command Module

The actual Apollo 11 command module – good stuff!

Because it is the world’s largest collection of air and space vehicles, the collection has been expanded to two locations – the original museum on the National Mall and the other at the massive UDVAR-Hazy center next to the Washington-Dulles Airport.  Of course, we had to see both of them!

Air France Concorde

Concorde – the first commercial supersonic airliner.

Of course, what we saw here were not replicas, but the real historically significant aircraft and spacecraft.  Standing literally under the Space Shuttle Discovery was awesome – knowing that it flew beyond the limits of our earth.  And there was the Enola Gay, the actual aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  We also saw the Air France Concorde, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Apollo 11 command module, the actual original Wright brother’s flying contraption, and so much more.  Overwhelming!

Space Shuttle Discovery

Space shuttle Discovery

I had to agree with Steve, this place is extraordinary.  Standing next to so many historic displays took my breath away!

Pratt & Whitney R-4360

This got Steve’s blood flowing – a massive Pratt & Whitney R-4360 turboprop assembly.

From airplanes and spacecraft, we came back down to earth at the National Health and Medicine Museum. This often overlooked and off-the-beaten-path museum has several collections of morbid anatomy on display.  The collection has real human remains (bones, tissues and parts), and an interesting display that discusses facial reconstruction.  There are also exhibits that display gruesome injuries from the battlefields of several wars and describe the medical techniques used for them at the time.

Bone remains from the battle of Gettysburg

Bone remains from the battle of Gettysburg

The emphasis here was on military medicine, documenting the effects of war wounds and disease on the human body and the remarkable changes in American medicine over the past 150 years.  There was a display that marked Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birth anniversary, including items associated with his last hours.  The physicians who cared for him and the bullet that killed him were on display.  We found this museum to be unique and well worth a look – even if you aren’t into medicine.  Thanks to our best bud Don for recommending another winner!

National Health and Medicine Museum

Bullets and shrapnel removed from wounds

We noticed a National Building Museum on our map and decided to see what that was about.  It included a display called “Americas Great Places, the Guastavino family”.  We had not heard that name before, but their architectural legacy can be seen under the lofty vaults and domes of this beautiful building.  There are several iconic structures attributed to the Guastavino’s, notably Grand Central Terminal, the Boston Public Library and the U.S. Supreme Court building, to name a few.

Guastavino Family

Guastavino family

National Building Museum

Lobby of National Building Museum – that ceiling is WAY up there!

We also dropped by the National Archives, where, along with a big crowd of kids, we managed to peek at all the original Charters of Freedom in America.  No photography allowed, but to just see the original 200+ year old Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights sort of capped our own history trail education.

National Archives

We happened to get inside the National Archives, along with a bunch of kids.

We spent a few hours at the National Museum of the American Indian and observed that the museum is really a cultural celebration of Indians from the past and present.  Eight galleries recount the history of individual communities from their perspective.  And, they have a very good (although a bit pricey) cafeteria there.  Thanks to Greg and Michelle for telling us about this one!

Extensive collections at the National American Indian Museum

Collections unearthed from way back – 1491

As an afterthought we stopped by the National Art Gallery, West building.  Not being art lovers, we just breezed through and then out we went.  But not before I snapped this Madonna and Child, a painted and gilded paper mache and stucco, circa 1550.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child, circa 1550.

Believe me, that was a lot of museums to visit!  After four solid days we had headaches from learning more than we wanted to.  We also became veteran Metro riders and walked miles and miles.  Our legs and brains hurt, yet we had barely scratched the surface in this city.  It seems like going through all of these world-class museums could take a lifetime.  There is something for everyone in the nation’s capital, and worthy of a visit – despite the bickering politicians.

Here are a few sights I captured during our visit:

Reflection Pool

Reflecting Pool with the Washington Monument (still under repair) in the background.

House of Congress

A happy person takes a break from her arduous touring.

Next up:  Our explorations outside of Washington, DC

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Gettysburg, 150 years later

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Unknown to us, we arrived at Gettysburg, PA as the town was preparing for its 150th commemmoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, running June 28 to July 7.  I wanted to come here simply because of the famous Gettysburg address, which Abraham Lincoln delivered in two minutes on Nov 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ Military Cemetery.  In my Literature class (not History) many moons ago, memorizing and delivering this address was a requirement.  So I really wanted to experience where it was originally delivered.  The beginning iconic phrase of the address still rings in my ears and is stuck in my memory, but I now have a better perspective of the emotion and depth of the message of that historic speech.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Lincoln Address Memorial

Although the actual location is a couple of hundred yards away, this is the Lincoln Address Memorial inside the Soldiers’ Military Cemetery

On our visit, I got so much more than I came for.  I really didn’t know what to expect until I arrived.  We have been to some of the Civil War Trails in our journey, where I learned a lot about American history, particularly the Civil War era.  But on this stop I felt a profound understanding, education and realization about how pertinent the Gettysburg Address still is today.

New York State Monument

Soldiers’ National Cemetery; numbers represent unknown soldiers, and there are thousands of them

We learned that to get a good grasp and understanding of what happened here 150 years ago, one should go to the visitor’s center first.  Unfortunately, the center and its parking lot were already jam-packed full when we arrived on our first day, so instead we took the Guided Battlefield Bus Tour.  There are several ways to see the battlefield, but we opted for the Licensed Guide Bus Tour.  We felt that a self-guided auto tour might be a good option, but with so many people in town the traffic and parking situation was not looking good.  Had we known the significance of this weekend we would have arrived at dawn!

Battlefield at Gettysburg

Observation Tower, note the crowd

Another way to explore the battlefield is by bicycle, and we recommend this option.

Biking at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Look how these smart folks visited the Gettysburg Battlefield – no parking issues for them!

The 24-mile, two-hour tour of the historic fields of Gettysburg traces the three-day battle in chronological order.  The licensed guide offered us a unique perspective into the struggles of the battle.  The guide was engaging and knowledgeable, and we could sense his passion and love of his job.  Through his narration we visualized and imagined what it was like when he described significant actions during the fighting.  He gave us a few minutes to reflect and try to understand what happened here.  We highly recommend this bus tour; between it and several hours at the visitor’s center you can come away with quite an education.

View of Oak Ridge, Gettysburg Battlefield

View of Oak Ridge and a monument of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry

Many areas look much as they did in July 1863, though some are more densely covered by trees.  And of course now you will see the 1,320 monuments remembering the three-day battle’s 51,000 casualties; 23,000 Union Army and 28,000 Confederate Army.  These figures count the dead, injured and lost among them.  The peaceful rolling fields pay silent tribute to this tremendous sacrifice.

Devils Den

Devils Den as viewed from Little Round Hill

The well preserve Gettysburg battlefield, a sacred ground, was considered the turning point in the Civil War 150 years ago.  It is a very poignant reminder of the bravery of the soldiers on both sides.  Below are just a few of the 1,320 monuments, 410 cannon, and plaques within the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Gettysburg Battlefields Monument

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments

Cemetery Hill Attack

Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments

More monuments

Pennsylvania Memorial

Pennsylvania Memorial the largest memorial in the park.

Virginia Memorial

Virginia State Memorial

Gettysburg Battlefield

We came back again very early on July 1st, hoping to beat the crowd at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.  Even though we arrived before it opened, there was already a line ahead of us, which reminded me of the Black Friday shopping lines.

Gettysburg National Military Park  Museum and Visitor Center

Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center

We watched the 25-minute film “A New Birth of Freedom”, which was narrated by  Morgan Freeman.  It gave us an unforgettable perspective about the Civil War – in other words, I finally got it!  The Gettysburg Cyclorama is a sound and light show of the spectacular 377-foot painting by Paul Philippoteaux, depicting Picket’s charge, completed in 1884.  It was quite a unique experience, like an IMAX of the late 1880’s where  the vast circular painting put us in the middle of the battle.  Canon flash effects on the canvas and sounds of the battle all around gave the illusion of movement.  There were rocks, weapons and other objects in front of the painting that brought a sense of depth.  Very well done!

Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama

Visitors experiencing the Cyclorama presentation

Gettysburg Battlefield Cyclorama

Just a small section of 377′ Cyclorama

The movie, the Cyclorama and the museum is well worth the $12.50 entrance fee.  We highly recommend this historic park to everyone!

As we headed out of town we saw long lines of cars in the battlefield areas and living historian volunteers preparing for the reenactment of the battles by section.

Battlefield Reenactment Volunteers

Battlefield reenactment volunteers

Traffic at the Battlefield

Traffic and parking were tough at the Battlefield

Sally, the Union Mascot

Sally, the Union Mascot

 

Click here for photos and news of reenactment today in Gettysburg.

Happy 4th of July everyone!  Now lets go out and enjoy those fireworks!

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