City of light and enlightenment…

Ross is better at maths than me, but it goes something like this…. Melbourne has 600 people per sq km; Washington DC has 30,000 per sq km.  Try getting your head around these figures:
Melbourne, Australia    Area: 8,806 sq klms  Pop:  4 million
Washington DC’s metro   Area:  177 sq klms   Pop:  5.3 million

So why does Washington seem so uncrowded, clean and filled with space and light?

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The Capitol Building_centre of American government

It could be the peaceful, wide streets with their autumnal trees, or the monumental, beautiful and well-preserved historical buildings in the city’s centre (trust the Americans to do things right) or the fabulous, easy-to-follow subway system taking away the need for masses of cars, or the height restrictions to all buildings – no skyscrapers here, unless you count the needle of the Washington Monument.

It also could be the fact that many people live in apartments and condos. But it’s more likely to be that we don’t go into the ‘suburbs’ where the overcrowding and poverty are – this city has the highest crime rate in the US. While we’re there a friend of my sister is held up by a couple of teenagers with a gun as she walks along the street near her home – it was a ‘transitional’ area though, not quite gentrified enough. They took money and that was all.

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Up on my sister's apartment's roof.

There are many beautiful things to see in Washington DC. Buildings… imagine Canberra on ‘history-steroids’, with an unlimited amount of money since the 1790s to devote to the architecture. And boy, didn’t those city fathers (no mothers?) get it right.

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Entrance hall_the Library of Congress_Jefferson Building

My favourite is the Jefferson Building – a tribute to Thomas Jefferson. It houses the Library of Congress and it’s here I meet the librarian of the American Children’s Rare Books Collection, Jacqueline Coleburn. But I’ll follow up on that little story in the next blog.

Washington DC is a most lucky place if you are enthused about science, art, music, literature, space travel, flight, photography, journalism, history, people … what else is there? Oh, yes, sport, but I can include that as well.

For it is in this city, in a splendid, tree-lined boulevard where you’ll find most of the famous Smithsonian Institution – and the treasures contained within them all.

The National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the list goes on.

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Best collection of dinosaur fossils I've ever seen

Sorry, New York, these galleries and museums beat yours hands down. The mind and the sense boggle – there’s Amelia Earhart’s plane, and the authentic Wright brothers’ one as well; beaten gold masks stolen by the Spanish from ancient Indians; the best collection of dinosaur bones I’ve ever seen; and sticking with the BIG theme, a massive, red and blue Alexander Calder mobile hanging from the ceiling of the National Art Gallery.

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Alexander Calder mobile

But the very best thing of all about these Smithsonian Institutions is that they are all FREE and open to all who walk through their doors. Why? Because of an enlightened scientist from Britain.

In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist drew up his last will and testament and named his nephew as beneficiary, but should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go “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.”

James Smithson never visited America, never corresponded with anyone in that country. Did he do it, as some think, out of revenge against ‘the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name’.

Or was this a man who believed in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education?

After visiting most of the Smithsonian collections over 10 days, and before my feet went on strike, I’m believing he was truely an enlightened man.

Thank you very much, Mr Smithson.

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