Exploring the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum in Washington
04.06.2013 - 06.06.2013 26 °C
The Smithsonian Institute is massive; its nucleus of over a dozen large museums lining the top end of the National Mall in Washington is the largest museum complex in the world. It was founded in 1846 using 105 sacks of gold sovereigns bequeathed "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" by British scientist James Smithson who died in 1829.
Although there was no way I could (or would indeed want!) to explore all of the Smithsonian museums during my few days in Washington the National Air and Space Museum (the most popular of them, averaging 9 million visitors per annum) had always been high on my Washington bucket list.
Excitingly several of the iconic "milestones of flight" are on display the moment you walk in off the National Mall; the Apollo 11 Command Module as recovered from the Pacific after the first manned flight to the Moon in 1969 has pride of place with the Spirit of St Louis in which Charles Lindberg made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927 hanging from the ceiling above.
In my opinion however the jewel of the collection is the Wright Flyer in which Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned heavier than air flight near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina on the 17th December 1903 which has been given a gallery of its own. The Apollo Lunar Module also has its own gallery with the module on display being the one used for ground testing; the other 5 that were built are still sat up on the surface of the Moon somewhere!
About a third of the museum's galleries are devoted to space flight with several other command modules (the only bits that normally come back!) on show including Friendship 7 (1st American in space 1962), Gemini IV (1st American spacewalk 1965) and the Apollo Command Module used for Skylab 4 (1st American space station 1973).
Most of the really big space exhibits are on display in the Space Race Gallery including the backup Skylab Workshop Module (1973) which you can walk through, test vehicles from the US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and the Hubble Space Telescope (1990). There was also a German V1 Flying Bomb and V2 Missile on display from WWII and from more recent times a Tomahawk Cruise Missile.
On the aviation side there were several galleries containing military aircraft from different periods of history or performing particular roles. There was a gallery of biplanes with a reconstruction of muddy trenches from World War I. There was also a WWI de Havilland DH-4 reconnaissance plane with a box camera being held over its side pointing groundward in the Looking at Earth gallery, it looked very crude alongside the U-2 Spy plane and satellites that were also on display there.
From World War II there was a gallery containing an example of a fighter aircraft and a pilot's uniform from the USA (P-51D Mustang), Britain (Mk. VII Spitfire), Italy (Macchi C.202 Folgore), Japan (Mitsubishi A6M Zero) and Germany (Messerschmitt Bf 109G). There was also a German WWII Messerschmitt Me 262 included as the first operational jet fighter amongst the exhibits in the Jet Aviation gallery.
Naval Aviation was covered by a separate Sea-Air Operations gallery containing a reconstruction of the bridge of an aircraft carrier (with video filmed aboard the USS Enterprise) and examples of naval aircraft such as the Gruman F4F Wildcat and Douglas SBD-6 Dauntless from the WWII Pacific War and A-4C Skyhawk from Vietnam. The was also a separate gallery for Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which included a MQ-1L Predator that had recently flown 196 combat missions over Afghanistan.
There was also a large "America by Air" gallery devoted to passenger aircraft down the ages with a 1936 Eastern Airlines Douglas DC-3 hanging centre stage amongst a host of other historic passenger aircraft arrayed in front of the nose of a 1970s Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 which you could also walk through to have a look at the flight deck.
The final couple of galleries covered pioneering aircraft from the inter war years; the bright red Lockheed 5B Vega that Amelia Earhartused in 1932 when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and then the USA seemed to centre stage however I must admit bearing in mind I was on an around the trip I was particularly interested in the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago which was of two (of four that started) to compete the 1st round the world flight in 1924.
I spent a whole afternoon in the Air and Space Museum and know I could have spent a lot longer and there was still plenty more to see. I also managed to squeeze in a brief visit the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum on the north side of the National Mall (7.5 million visitors per annum and the most visited natural history museum in the world) on my final morning in Washington.
The first exhibition hall I saw inside was the Ocean Hall dominated by a 45 feet (14 metre) long North Atlantic Right Whale hanging overhead. However the exhibit adopted as the symbol of the museum is the massive African Bull Elephant in the Rotunda which was shot by a Hungarian big-game hunter in 1955 and subsequently donated to the museum. Its hide weighed 2 tons and it took a taxidermist 10,000 pounds of clay and 16 months to get ready before it originally went on display in 1959.
Next up was the Dinosaur Hall with its mounted dinosaur skeletons towering above us and excited school parties. Predictably centre stage were enormous mounted skeletons of a horned Triceratops, long lumbering Diplodocus and the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex.
There were several adjacent galleries containing fossils of sea life, plants and mammals but the next one to catch my eye was the one on Ice Age Mammals and Emergence of Man which included large mounted skeletons of a Woolly Mammoth and an Irish Elk. There was also a recreation of a Neanderthal family's burial of young man based on a 70,000-year-old site found in the Regourdou cave in Dordogne, France.
Amongst the galleries upstairs was the Gems and Minerals Hall with rooms full of cases of sparkling minerals and odd shaped meteorites. In pride of place surrounded by a permanent crowd admiring it was the deep blue 45.52-carat (9.10 g) Hope Diamond from India, often referred to as the "most famous diamond in the world" and notorious since it was first discovered in the 17th century for supposedly being cursed.
Also upstairs there was the Western Cultures Hall containing amongst other things an ancient Egyptian coffin and an ugly looking mummy of a divine bull which when it was alive would have lived like a god in a special pen with a temple's walls. The Natural History Museum had several other galleries devoted to more contemporary wildlife with the Mammals Hall and Insect Zoo particularly popular but unfortunately I had run out of time and needed to move on.