Saturday, April 25, 2009

putputputtering around

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of George Washington? Freemasonry!

The Temple of the Scottish Rite, with its huge expanse of steps, sphinxes, and columns (DC loves columns) has firmly staked out its place on a corner just down the street from where I'm staying, and cruising by one day I noticed they had a Visitors Welcome sign outside. I was hoping to learn or see something scandalous, but it's all quite tame - at least, what they present is all quite tame. Feigning ignorance, which is partially true, I was shown a short film on freemasonry, and then guided around the building by an intern. The most titillating thing not on display are the bodies of some bigwigs interred in the walls, vertically, behind their busts. I was shown a couple of meeting rooms, draped in purple and tidied up to within an inch of their lives - probably using a large mason's layout square - and the library, which includes a copy of the The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar for when kids visit. I resisted the urge to ask about conspiracy theories, unsolved murders, and world domination, and left with a handful of souvenir coins. They have this bizarre mishmosh of emblems and symbols - masonry tools, I get that part, but also Greek and Egyptian gods and imagery, numerology, sun rays, and who knows what else. Not that I have a problem with borrowing gods, imagery, or ideas from other cultures and mixing them up, I just couldn't figure out how they all synthesized into the masonic creed. If I had been on my toes a little more on the tour, I would have asked, but I think i was the only visitor in the entire building, which was almost empty, so it felt a little weird.

By this point I had knocked off most of the items on my Must See list. There were still a number of Might Be Nice To Sees, but I wasn't feeling hugely motivated. I returned the the National Portrait Gallery to try to get a glimpse of the conservators in action, and found out there was a conservation talk later in the day, so decided to come back. I went to Ford's Theater, despite a fair warning it wasn't worth it, because I was told the Peterson House across the street, where Lincoln finally expired, was worth it. Ford's Theater gets a big fat red F in the sightseeing grade book. They tell you you can only see the house after attending the theater talk, which consists of being hustled into the renovated theater, and subjected to a 20-minute retelling of Lincoln's assassination, which you already know about because you (a) went to school, (b) know how to read, and (c) were probably exposed to the entire story at another Lincoln exhibition in town. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late to escape. They do a really swell job of trapping their audience. I was told that the elevator ride to the permanent exhibit in the Holocaust Museum is supposed to instill a sense of being trapped and disoriented before being released into the exhibition, which really does have a whammy introduction of a wall of steel plate with the words The Holocaust cut out in stark, block letters - I'm getting off track. I didn't feel trapped or disoriented at the Holocaust Museum. I felt totally trapped at Ford's Theater.

We were finally freed from bondage, and everyone moved across the street to the Peterson House, like a big herd of brainless sheep. Imagine a theater full of people waiting in line to enter a standard-sized doorway, at the top of a small flight of stairs. It was almost time for the conservation talk, so I just bailed on the house, but popped back into the lobby of the theater to see Lincoln's very fine overcoat on display. And they couldn't even get this right - the glass on the case is reflecting so much light and shiny surfaces of the lobby you can't even see the coat. Thoroughly disgusted, I went back to the Portrait Gallery (they are only two blocks apart), and had my faith in interesting and quality things for tourists restored. Turns out the Portrait Gallery is the only museum that is exposing its conservation labs, and somewhat as an experiment, since no one has done it before. We saw a couple of conservators hunched over work tables, doing their stuff, and our guide talked about the mission of the museum's conservation efforts, as well as the conservator's code of ethics; even though they may restore a piece, structurally and cosmetically, everything they do is designed and engineered to be undone, should it become necessary to do so. If a cosmetic fix is applied, it may not be visible to the naked eye, but under advanced means of scrutiny, their work can be easily identified and distinguished from the original work, as they always use different materials. Fascinating stuff.

After that I finally got a proper look at the National Gallery's East Wing, after a swing through their sculpture garden (more questionable "sculpture", including one work that's a big square of one-inch thick steel that's being allowed to weather. Whatever). There's an Andy Goldsworthy installation that's so huge I only realized by accident that it was art, and not part of the building. I wasn't dazzled by their collection. For contemporary art, I prefer the Hirshhorn.

I didn't want to waste daylight hours sitting inside, so for an evening stroll I took the Metro to Foggy Bottom/GWU and walked to the Potomac, passing the Watergate Building, famous for, oh yeah, Watergate, but also because up close it's the ugliest building in DC. It's uglier than the Slovenian Embassy. If you find yourself by the water behind the Kennedy Center, it's sort of hard to find a place to cross the street without being reduced to a smudge on the road, so I kept going until I hit the back of the Lincoln Memorial, and then cut back up to Foggy Bottom. And then it was time to go home.

A quick word on home - home is a room in a private apartment. I don't mind staying in hotels, but they always cost way more than I want to spend, especially for two weeks. I briefly investigated, but the few profiles I read asked that surfers not stay more than a couple of days, and I didn't want to bother having to pack up, move, and resettle every few days, even if it was free lodging. craigslist wasn't turning up any decent sublets. Then I stumbled on Airbed and Breakfast. It's sort of the compromise between couchsurfing and a hotel. I think it's a good idea, and worked really well for this trip, so I wanted to give it a plug. Also, part of the purpose of this blog is to document travel tips, information, and discoveries, just in case they help someone else out in the future.

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