A few weekends ago, my husband and I spent a gorgeous Sunday on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve been all over the United States and the National Mall is, for me, the very best of America. The Mall houses the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art (the only museum not part of the Smithsonian), the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Reflecting Pool and many other memorials and gardens. It’s visited by 24 million people a year and hosts rallies, presidential inaugurations, festivals, parades and performances. Over the course of my life, I’ve probably spent a full month of days visiting the mall and I am always excited to go back. Why do I love it so much? Well, for many reasons, but here are the most salient.
For starters, all the museums are free. Free! In America, this is increasingly not the norm. And who knows what those whacky kids in Washington will do next? But for now, every single museum and monument is free to enter. I love that all that the Mall and its museums have to offer is available to everyone equally. Rich or poor—anyone can walk into the Museum of Natural History and see the fabled Hope Diamond or the fabulous new Ocean Hall. Art that previously graced the walls of America’s most wealthy now hangs in the National Gallery of Art for all to admire. The wealth of treasures housed in the Smithsonian museums—currently there are eleven with a twelfth slated to be begun in 2012—is nothing short of astonishing and it’s proffered to anyone and everyone to see.
Secondly, the park and monuments are open 365 days a year. The museums are open every day of the year but December 25th. The hours are the same every day of the year. There’s no nod given (with the exception of the closing on Christmas) to any one religion’s or culture’s customs.
Thirdly, the variety of things to see and do at the Mall is mind boggling. I’ve walked through a larger than life squad of Korean War soldiersdressed in full combat gear and thought about how differently that war shaped America than did the war in Vietnam. I’ve run my fingers along Maya Lin’s heartbreaking wall and literally felt the names of the 58,715 who died in that divisive conflict. I never grow tired of the Lincoln Memorial with its huge weary looking statue surrounded by the still powerful words of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I have climbed up to the top of the Washington monument many a time and looked out its tiny windows. I’ve stared at countless pieces of art in the Mall’s six art and sculpture museums—I am especially partial to the extraordinary Chester Dale collection at the National Gallery of Art which has, in its 300 plus paintings, my favorite work by Renoir, “The Odalisque” and my favorite work by Mary Cassatt, “The Boating Party.”I love the famed jewels at the Museum of Natural History. (My favorites are the diamond earrings owned by Marie Antoinette and the diamond necklace Napoleon gave his second wife.) Really, I could just go on and on!
Lastly, the Mall reminds me of all that is great about my native land. When I walk on the Mall and see all those great Americans, known and unknown, memorialized there, when I gaze down the reflecting pool and see the dome-topped Capitol, and when I see all the differing people from all over the world milling about, talking in so many different languages, I am proud of America and her possibilities.
I can’t wait to go again!
- Dabney AAR