Exploring the depths of the National Mall

The Mall
Monday, June 4, 2001
10:30 a.m.

It figures all my friends would go back home the summer I decide to stay in D.C. Jobless, I needed to find a tolerable way to pass my days. So instead of wasting my day flipping through endless channels of mind-numbing morning television, I set off with my Metro card and headed off to the free museums the Mall has to offer.

I did some research, and after two years of living in this city, I learned for the first time about the National Postal Museum. My curiosity was tapped. What was in there.a bunch of stamps? The Postal Museum was definitely the first destination on my route.

I met my friend at the Smithsonian Metro station on the Blue Line, which turned out to be a bad idea. From the miniature map that was not drawn to scale, the museum appeared a lot closer to the station than it actually was.

Walking around like tourists wandering into the depths of the city, we looked for Massachusetts Avenue, which was right by Union Station. We should have taken the Red Line there instead.

National Postal Museum

The museum was put in an old post office building, located on 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E. Walking in was a little misleading since there were no real indications that the place was a museum. But after walking a bit, big banners pointed to the museum.

The atrium gallery took me by surprise. Old mail carrying planes hung from the ceiling. A horse drawn carriage was situated on the right with an old railway car. The entrance to the exhibits inside started as an old American Indian trail, which was how the first mailman marked his 268-mile journey between Boston and New York.

Then the halls took us through the history of the service, from women manning the posts during the American Revolution to the development of the perfect mailbox. There was even a little quiz game that asked the visitor why a mailbox design was discontinued.

The number of ways mail was carried throughout history was baffling. Horseback, carriage, sled, railroad, plane, car, car with skis instead of tires, truck, bus and others – the list goes on. I came across a true-and-false game about the Pony Express walking through the history of transportation, and thought I would give it a shot.

I got the first question right. Smugly I went on to the next one. I got that one wrong. And the next one, wrong. It seemed to continue that way until I reached the last two out of the seven, which were not working. One was stuck on the right answer so I gave myself the point. The other did not light up. I figured I could chalk a point up on that question, too. Three out of seven is still failing. I am definitely not the expert on the Pony Express.

After the visit, we decided we were hungry and ate lunch at the food court in Union Station. Our next stop would be the National Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur bones. I had never seen actual bones before except in books.

National Museum of Natural History

I never know where to start when I visit big museums. There are never any big arrow signs or big “Start Here” signs anywhere. I guess a map would have been useful, but I like to do things the hard way. Besides, this was just going to be a quick visit to the dinosaur room, and we still wanted to hit two more museums on the Mall.

The room was easy to find on the ground floor. The room started with some fossils to warm up the museum’s visitors for the big show. Past the fossil walls were the dinosaurs, the first being the mean Tyrannosaurus rex. The information board in front of this monster and his vicious teeth dubbed him “the king of tyrant reptiles.”

Purposely, the museum designers put Triceratops facing Tyrannosaurus and asked the readers to determine who would win a fight between the two, a ferocious carnivore or a sedate herbivore. Triceratops had a chance to escape due to the three horns on its head.

Speaking of horns, a model was placed on an information board and was one of the few things that visitors are allowed to touch. I could perfectly imagine the typical museum movie scene, where the characters run around and accidentally knock one bone in the dinosaur exhibit, which brings the rest of the dinosaurs tumbling down in a domino-effect-type mess.

But the largest dinosaur there was not the Tyrant. It was Diplodocus, a 90-foot dinosaur that was about the weight of two elephants. And my parents complain about our 75-pound Labrador walking all over our feet. I would not want one of those stepping on my toe.

It was interesting to know that many of the bones were found in Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota and even Kansas. For some reason where archeologists found the remains had never crossed my mind. Most of the dinosaurs were 70 to 150 million years old.

My nephew, a six-year-old expert on dinosaurs, would have been in heaven. I have to take him there sometime. I will also have to visit the IMAX Theater and watch Galapagos, which was recommended by my friend. It costs $6.50 for one show, $10 for two.

National Museum of American History

Our next stop was the National Museum of American History. There was a special exhibit on the “American Presidency.” Tickets are needed for the exhibit, but they are free. The exhibit went through the presidents and had memorabilia associated with each one. A dummy was dressed in George Washington’s general officer’s uniform from the 1790s, and there were dresses from the first inaugural ball.

There was a car that was bought by Ulysses S. Grant to ride in his second inaugural parade. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a great set of golf clubs. There was a political cartoon wall, and another wall dedicated to presidential street signs.

What I found the funniest was a bull’s-eye with Lyndon B. Johnson’s face in the middle. This toy was created to make fun of his politics when he made his decision in 1967 to escalate the Vietnam War. It was complete with green darts and everything.

A section was created for assassinations and attempts on presidents’ lives. Walls were dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Gerald Ford was almost assassinated twice in 1975, both times by women, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. The guns they used were in the display case.

After the walk through the “American Presidency,” we moved on to the submarine room. There were no significantly impressive models of the outside of a submarine, but the inside was well covered. We passed by the attack center, which is where commands are sent to the submarine and its weapons. The number of dials, buttons and levers was incredible. There must have been over 100. The submarine manual must come in a multi volume edition.

We passed by the different types of ballistic missiles and cold war paraphernalia to the submarine’s power and propulsion room, which also contained just as many dials as the attack center.

We came across the living quarters of the submarine’s crew. There was a mess hall, which looked like a small, quaint deli. The model was even set out with the condiments, Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard and Tabasco sauce.

The claustrophobic bunkers caught my attention. My friend pointed out that there would be no room to move in bed. The crew must have to sleep on their backs. There was also a model toilet, with a magazine rack. It is nice to know that hundreds of feet under water one can still enjoy a good magazine on the loo.

National Gallery of Art

Time was running out before my friend had to get to class, and there was still a quick stop planned for the National Gallery of Art. I could not go all the way to the Mall without seeing my favorite Claude Monet painting, “The Japanese Footbridge.”

We walked through the impressive atrium of the museum and walked through some early 16th-century Italian sculpture. We came to a beautiful sitting area with a fountain of an angel playing with a swan. There were coins tossed into the fountain, and I debated whether I should throw one in and make a wish. But I remembered that I had kept the line waiting at the salad place in Union Station, counting out exact change to pay for lunch.

We wandered some more, before we were told by one of the custodians to visit the big attraction at the museum, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, “Ginevra de’ Benci” in Gallery six. We got a little lost finding the gallery, since the numbers did not seem to be sequenced, but we eventually found it. Other Italian painters’ works surrounded it and I recognized a lot of their names. The two semesters of art history did come in handy after all.

We finally decided to skip to the Impressionist exhibit located in Galleries 80-93 to visit Monet. A whole gallery was dedicated to him, and I stood in awe in front of “The Japanese Footbridge.”

We then made a quick turn to see paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. What makes his painting interesting is that he painted on cardboard mounted on wood, instead of on canvas.

It was time to leave after Toulouse-Lautrec. We made our way out of the museum and decided not to make the same mistake and end up walking forever to the Smithsonian station and took the Archives-Navy Memorial station around the corner instead.

There are still many more Smithsonian museums that I would like to visit, such as the National Air and Space Museum, several other art museums and the National American Indian Museum. I will also have to go back and do the same ones again, this time only one museum a day.

The amount of random facts my mind picked up from this visit was amazing.

Ask me about the history of the postal service, I might know.

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