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Thursday, January 7, 2010

A day at the museum

Make a resolution: Enjoy family-friendly DC

I haven't taken nearly as much advantage of the city's museums as I expected to over the past couple of months. Between spending two weeks in Indiana, a long weekend in Costa Rica and the holidays, it seems like weekends have been pretty booked.

Besides a quick pop into the National Archives (hadn't been there since a school fieldtrip in fourth grade), a quiet Sunday at Dumbarton Oaks and a brief stroll through the National Gallery of Art, I've totally failed at any real cultural outings.

Luckily, Lauren is a great museum buddy and is always looking for people to explore with. After a delicious lunch at Matchbox Sunday, we decided to check out the closest museum, the National Portrait Gallery.

Since its renovation a few years ago, this has become of one of my favorite museums. It is so architecturally stunning that you could just wander the halls and admire the decor without ever seeing a painting or work of art. The building itself is the work of art.

Probably the most famous collection is the Hall of Presidents, which has portraits of every U.S. President and a big ceremony each time a new presidential portrait is unveiled. It's interesting seeing the progression from 18th century oil paintings to more modern representations of 20th century leaders.

A couple of years ago, Stephen Colbert famously got the Portrait Gallery to temporarily display a painting of him, which hung next to the bathroom just outside the Hall of Presidents.

January 2008 - seeing Stephen Colbert's portrait definitely beat the presidents

There are always various special exhibits but a real highlight is "Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits of the American West, 1845-1924." These early photographs capture the true spirit of American westward expansion, both the good and the bad. Pictures of intrepid explorers and pioneers are intermingled with photos of subjugated American Indians, brought to Washington and posed.

Modern art

Just walking through the exhibit is a history lesson.

Attached via a courtyard is the American Art Museum -- it's easy to see both in afternoon without ever having to go outside. Lauren and I both enjoyed an exhibit on the American Civil War, with rare Matthew Brady photographs. It was fun learning about the "hidden" side of American history, too, like the story of Pauline Cushman, an actress turned spy for the Union. Who knew? (We sure didn't!)

The best thing about DC's museums? They are nearly all free! It's incredible to see great works of art up close (including the only da Vinci painting in the Western hemisphere) for no cost. Makes for a fun, free afternoon outing.

Do you like visiting museums?