So last week, I took a very short trip down to DC to cross off a long-standing bucket list item -- taking in the Inca Road exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC (it's part of the Smithsonian).
I've always been fascinated by Pre-Contact cultures and the Inca were the final incarnation of several earlier civilizations that went before it. The Inca, however, managed to build the largest empire in the region and linked it all together with their fine roads, some of which are still in use to this day. The feature of the roads that I find most interesting is that all roads lead to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca, and the roads in and around Cuzco have a series of small shrines dotted along them. This network of roads and shrines were used as a calendar. Different Incan social groups would have charge over some number of shrines and they were responsible for maintaining the shrines and making sure that each shrine's holy day was properly celebrated. The cycle of holy days ran through the year and helped mark time. Those social groups were defined by this elaborate kinship and age group interactions and contained provisions for folding conquered people into the Incan fold. While it's the piece of Incan culture most interesting to me, I can't explain how it works very well. In any event, this was a major exhibition on the Inca and it closes in June next year. I've been wanting to go for a while and decided to just go over the weekend. I booked a short trip, in on Thursday, fly home on Saturday because there are some major projects going on at work and I wanted to be back to take care of it.
As mentioned in a previous post -- I lost my job last Wednesday so...yeah, this was a weird trip in a lot of ways.
So I fly in on Thursday evening and go to my hotel. The Hotel Harrington bills itself as the "Tourist's Hotel" and, woof. It was cheap, it was downtown near the mall, and...it wasn't terrible, but it was definitely just a place to store you and your stuff while you took in the sights. Then I went out for supper and had a delightful moment of cognitive dissonance.
I went to this pub around the corner and took an outdoor table (incidentally, the weather was freaking gorgeous the entire time I was there). I sat there just taking in the city traffic and the various buildings and I notice there's this large, ornate, lit-up place just diagonally across the street from me. I thought it was part of the Smithsonian
Then, bells start to chime. It's an actual tune not just counting out the hours. It goes on for a bit, but it's pleasant and cheerful and I think "oh neat, that seems odd for a government building, but not if it's the Smithsonian or maybe it's a fancy church/temple. So I pull out my phone and look up the building across the street.
It's the Trump International Hotel in DC.
And then I had to laugh because now, of course, the bells were just an annoyance weren't they? Didn't matter that I'd thought they were pleasant seconds ago, now it's a problem. Silly monkey brain, enjoy the bells. It's probably not the auto-tuned wailing of immigrant children.
Luckily, Dear Leader is here for every citizen -- I figured it was a special tune for the hour. Except it wasn't the hour just yet and the bells would fall silent but start up again within a minute or two and again, there'd be some tune ringing out. And this just kept happening and happening. I asked the waiter "hey, how long does this go on?" and he said (wearily) "sometimes it lasts all evening".
Ahhh..and then it was OK for me to hate Trump's bells. I finished up, came home, watched videos on the spotty wifi.
Next day -- the Smithsonian buildings open at 10am, so I took off around 9:30 and started walking. It wasn't too far to get onto the National Mall and after a bit, I arrived at the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum itself, like a lot of the architecture in DC is amazing. They've got this water fountain/artificial river running along one side of the building and the interior had this massive dome.
Anyway, I spent the next couple of hours hitting up the exhibits in the museum. They had lots of really neat stuff on display. I did enjoy the exhibit on the Incas, they had this giant table with a touch screen built in so you could travel around the Incan capital and get detailed info on various important sites. Oddly, for an exhibit about how the Inca's remarkable road system, there was very little explanation of how the roads were built -- though they did have a pretty nice feature about how villages would build massive rope bridges to span large gaps. Still, I really enjoyed pretty much everything I saw. I stopped at the museum store and got the exhibition catalog and a couple other books on the Incas. This would prove to be a bit of a mistake since I eventually came back to the museum for a late lunch and could've waited to lug those books around until then.
Other exhibits included a series of displays explaining the cosmology of various Native Americans. I found it interesting that North American and South American groups had broadly similar worldviews. Most of the North American tribes had a version of a Great Wheel or Circle with white, red, yellow, and black quadrants representing north, east, south, and west respectively. South American tribes had more of a ladder configuration that ran from the upper world to the lower world and each "rung" was a pair of opposing concepts. Obviously, not everyone used the same template and it differed from tribe to tribe, but it was striking to see the same general plan being used by so many people.
After I left the museum, I walked east along Independence Ave., past the Capitol building and into the Library of Congress. The Library is actually split into 3 distinct buildings all connected by an underground walkway. So...it's the Library of Congress and it is open to the public but to wander the stacks -- or rather, to have a staff member go into the stacks and bring you something to read in the reading room -- you have to sign in and get credentialed as a reader and it's not something where you can just turn up and get in. So after passing through the Madison and Adams buildings, I walked back to the Jefferson building. Well, I hunched back because I used the underground tunnels which are not all that tall, but using the tunnels means I didn't have to go through security again and every major DC landmark has a security checkpoint at the door now. Anyway, the Jefferson building is the part of the Library you really want to see. Ornate and decorative, they had a number of public exhibitions about comic art, bob hope and political humor, Thomas Jefferson's original library (well, some of the books were his and others were copies brought in to fill out missing volumes), and a really nice display on Native Americans prior to Columbus. But beyond the exhibits, the library itself was gorgeous.
After that, I stopped by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Again, open to the public, but you can't just go in to read stuff, I found this library a bit of a disappointment. Their current exhibit was on the architecture of the building itself (which, like a lot of the architecture around here is amazing), but I was expecting more public
galleries about Shakespeare and his plays. The Folger Institution, is famous for the versions of the plays it publishes which have a glossary on each facing page, so as you read Shakespeare and come across a word or phrase you don't get, you just look over and there's often a nice explanation of what you're reading. So if anyone
has made me a fan of Shakespeare, Folger had a big hand in that.
After that, I wandered back to the Native American Museum, wandering briefly through the National Botanical Gardens. I grabbed lunch at the museum and headed back towards the hotel, stopping off for a quick view of the Air and Space Museum where I was again reminded that I am way too tall to be an astronaut and a bit of time in the sculpture gardens.
And that was pretty much it -- I went back to the hotel, got some supper and prepped to fly home the next morning. It was a short trip but a lot of fun. I'm glad I went.