Art and Animals

Kate was attending a workshop run by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG, a wonderful acronym) in Washington, DC this Wednesday and Thursday, and when she told me that, I said "Hey, I'm not teaching this term, why don't I tag along?" So, we extended the trip a little bit, and made it a family vacation (because, after all, it's going to be a while before we take any more long trips...).

While Kate did generally attorney-like things all day Wednesday and Thursday morning, I visited labs at NIST and UMD, about which more later. After her workshop was done, we decided to take advantage of the many opportunities available in DC (which, shockingly, has more going on than Schenectady), and get us some Culture. Thursday afternoon, we went to the Freer and Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, and then wandered around the Mall before meeting a friend for dinner, and Friday morning, we went to the National Zoo. Here's a bit of what we saw, and what I took away from it:

Sackler Gallery. The Sackler Gallery is the Smithsonian's Asian art museum, housed underground next to the famous castle. They have a nice collection in their own right, and they bring in a lot of interesting shows. Their current big show is called Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes: Edo Masters from the Price Collection which featured a nice assortment of screen and scroll paintings from Tokugawa-era Japan.

The coolest thing was probably "Birds, Animals and Flowering Plants in the Imaginary Scene" by Itoo Jakuchuu, seen here in an image fetched from the Google cache:


You can't really make out the fine detail in that image, but it's done in the style of a mosaic-- the whole six-panel screen is divided into squares about a centimeter on a side, and each square is painted in individually. There are two of these, with a bizarre assortment of animals, real and imaginary. You can find some more detail in this translated page from a Japanese museum, which compares it to another similar screen by the same artist.

Freer Gallery: The Freer Gallery is a bit eclectic, built around the collection of Charles Lang Freer, who had a bunch of Asian stuff, but was also a big fan of some American artists of the nineteenth century, most notably James McNeill Whistler, who, frankly, comes off as a bit of a dick.

They have a really extensive collection of Whistler paintings, including a whole room full of miniatures, mostly landscapes. These are perfectly nice paintings, albeit kind of blurry and monochrome-- here's an extreme example-- but they're mounted in these enormous elaborate gilded frames. This was apparently part of Whistler's conception, intended to make an abstract point of some sort (and there are a number of bitchy comments to that effect in the labels in the gallery), but given that the frame presented more than double the surface area of the paintings, I mostly just found it annoying.

The Mall: After the museum swing, we strolled down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, which never fails to impress. From a distance, it's yet another ponderous neo-classical building in DC's giant collection of ponderous neo-classical architecture, but up close, it's actually really well done. The statue is always better than I remember it, and the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural carved into the walls are just terrific pieces of oratory. They don't beat the Jefferson Memorial's "I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hatred toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man," but the Gettysburg Address is a respectable second place.

We also passed the Korean War and WWII memorials, which brought home two things: 1) The Vietnam memorial broke memorial-building forever, because everybody now feels compelled to acknowledge the horrors of war explicitly. The Korean War memorial's troubled statues and ghostly faces on marble are a bit too direct a copy from the Vietnam memorial, but the more old-school WWII monument feels almost anachronistic. 2) Rhetoric is dead. OK, Lincoln and Roosevelt were exceptionally gifted speakers, but honestly, even the generals quoted on the WWII memorial had a better way with words than any big-time politician these days.

The Zoo: Thursday was a beautiful sunny day, and as we were headed back to the Metro, I saw an ad for the panda exhibit, and said "Hey, let's go to the National Zoo tomorrow." Friday was kind of grey and dismal, but we went anyway, and got to enjoy the zoo almost entirely by ourselves.

The highlight was that I finally got to see the frickin' pandas. I've been to that zoo at least three or four times, and every other time I've been to the panda exhibit, they've been barely visible, just a small patch of black or white fur sleeping way in the back of the enclosure. This time, though, they were out and about, with one of the two bopping around munching on bamboo. As Kate noted, they're deeply improbably creatures-- they're huge, they're fertile for about two days a year, and they eat nothing but bamboo, which has almost no nutritional value. How they've managed to survive this long is a mystery to me. They're pretty darn cute, though.

Other highlights included a bunch of keepers posing for pictures with the beavers (another of the keepers was leaving, and they wanted a good-bye present), a bunch of cute and hyperactive otters, the keepers hosing down one of the elephants, a pair of utterly imperturbable mandarin ducks in the bird house, and the sloth-in-a-box (napping in a crate hung from the ceiling of the small mammal house).

The zoo was just about empty-- the volunteers just about outnumbered the visitors, and were practically mugging passers-by to point out animals and share science facts. Some of the animals weren't out due to the cool weather-- sadly, the red pandas were all elsewhere-- but we got to see a wide range of critters. We went through everything except the Invertebrate House, because while the advertised octopus feeding sounded interesting, neither of us are all that into bugs.

I would definitely recommend it. It's not that big a zoo, but the exhibits are well done, and they have some cool stuff. The volunteers were really helpful and enthusiastic, though I imagine they get a little swamped during peak hours in the summer. And, hey, you can't beat free admission.

The change in the whole concept of zoos over the years is really striking. I'm just old enough to remember when going to the zoo meant walking past rows of wrought-iron cages with bored animals in small concrete pens. The modern paradigm of providing them with as natural-looking a habitat as possible is a huge improvement, even if it does mean that it takes three or four trips before you catch the pandas out in the open where you can see them.

And now, we feel all cultured and stuff.

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Hyperactive otter is redundant.

We had a great time at the National Zoo a few years ago ourselves. The pandas were not only visible, they decided to put on a show, wrestling and rolling around and being totally adorable.

The highlight for us is always the big cats. When we were there the lions were cooperative at posing attractively in the sun, but the tigers were hidden in shadow.

Hmm. You know, it's been a while since we went to DC...


Good thread; nice verbal/visual/kinaesthetic balance.

Re: "... neither of us are all that into bugs..."

Carolus Linnaeus reportedly observed:
"God must be inordinately fond of beetles."


When asked what could be inferred about the work of the Creator from a study of His works, the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have replied, that He has "an inordinate fondness for beetles."

Some claim Haldane never even said this, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Linnaeus. Linneaus was a botanist.


Mary Kay: the tigers were out and RAR-ing at each other. I got a picture of one of them on her hind legs, trying to see the male tiger over the barrier.

Only one lioness, though.

Also, one of the volunteers let us feel beaver, otter, and seal pelts. I admit that my first reaction to the otter was "oooh, soft, want!"

Re: #2, #3

"Linneaus was a botanist" but also invented the classification system for species, and must have been annoyed by beetles which, in any case, crawl around sometimes on plants.

I also thought it was Haldane. Googling found me this:

Why are there more spicies of beetle than of any other creature?

and, of course, anyone who spells "species" as "spicies" is surely a reliable source.

IMBTIRIOTI: It Must Be True -- I Read It On The Internet.

Korea was my parent's Vietnam, but (because it was mercifully short for its violence, and there was an economy to rebuild during the 50s once it was over, and there was no victory to celebrate) it vanished into the history books with little discussion and no homecoming or monuments. From the point of view of men who had fought in WW II and then were called back as reservists (think "stop loss" today) because there was no time to train draftees and the army had been demobilized, it was a really bad situation. Imagine that you fight for a year in WW II, go to college (or take a job), get married, and then get sent to Korea right after you graduate.

Those statues capture perfectly what little I heard about the fighting from the father of a HS girlfriend and, more recently, a survivor of Chosin Reservoir. They don't copy anything from the Vietnam memorial, which added statues as an afterthought. The ghostly images on the wall reflect well the ghostly nature of that conflict in American history, as it vanished as quickly as it appeared.

PS - The one place I always visited in addition to the Vietnam memorial is the exhibit in the Smithsonian American History museum that displays items collected each day by the wall, even if I can barely stand it when I overhear kids asking why someone left a pack of cigs (owed to a dead buddy), or why a parent left a sled or a tricycle at the wall.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 09 Mar 2008 #permalink