Big City Tales

Strategy is Key to Visiting the Smithsonian Institution

July 31, 2018
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As the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, includes 17 local museums and galleries, numerous public gardens, and a zoo. The museums are primarily (and conveniently!) located along the National Mall and collectively contain over 150 million artifacts celebrating history, science, art and culture. There’s clearly a lot to see so having a strategy in place is key to making the most of visiting this much lauded and celebrated American treasure. A good place to start is at the Smithsonian Institution Building, referred to as ‘The Castle’.

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The Castle

In addition to housing administrative offices, the Castle is the primary visitor center and provides a full overview of the Smithsonian, including background information about James Smithson, the institute’s founding donor, and highlights from each of the individual museum permanent collections. Even for those planning an extended stay in DC, chances are that seeing all facets of the Smithsonian is not realistic so spending time wandering around the Castle’s mini-exhibits is advisable, as well as consulting with staff to find out if there are any current special exhibitions. Visitors are also welcome to explore the Castle’s unique 19th century architecture and interior design before heading out to other venues.

An interesting tidbit about James Smithson is that he was a British scientist who never actually visited the United States during his lifetime. Faced with the prospect of possibly having no living heirs to pass along his fortune to, in his will Smithson bequeathed his estate to the country with the express instructions “to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” So, thanks to the foresight of a Brit, the “nation’s attic” came to be in 1846 and has amazed and delighted visitors ever since with its vast and eclectic holdings.

American History Museum

For obvious reasons, one of the most popular Smithsonian museums is the National Museum of American History that explores the origins of the country dating back to colonial times. As no trip to the nation’s capital would be complete without a quick history lesson, this museum should be at the top of your “Smithsonian must see” list.

Among the many exhibits visitors can learn about the creation of the U.S. Constitution and read its text, review the main events and figures of the Civil War and other battles fought in the name of national freedom, revel in the glory of the flag and national anthem, admire first lady inauguration gowns, and enjoy some pop culture in the form of various film and television artifacts.

Founding Fathers to Civil War

From the War of Independence to the Wars of Expansion and the Civil War, America’s early existence was marked by some intense military conflicts that served to define its borders and carve out its collective values. The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit contains a plethora of incredible and significant artifacts such as George Washington’s uniform, battlefield relics from Gettysburg, and the chairs that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant used during the Civil War surrender ceremony.

Star-Spangled Banner

Patriotism abounds in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit that tells the story of how the iconic red, white and blue color scheme of the American flag came to be, and also delves into the inspiration behind the words of the country’s national anthem, penned by Francis Scott Key.

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The First Ladies

It’s not just the work of the founding fathers on display at the American History Museum, the inaugural fashions of the first ladies are also showcased. Michelle Obama’s gown and shoes from 2009 feature prominently in the exhibit along with those donned by Martha Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and others. The First Ladies exhibit also highlights the important work undertaken by many of these enterprising wives in support of their respective husbands’ administrations.

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The Joy of Cooking a la Julia Child

Before the rise of the Food Network and proliferation of TV chef personalities like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten and others, Julia Child ruled the small screen for 40 years and dazzled audiences with her command of French cuisine. From crepes to souffles, bouillabaisse to boeuf bourguignon, Julia welcomed viewers directly into her home kitchen based in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she and her guests cooked and laughed in equal measure. Julia definitely made cooking fun and her trademark send-off of ‘Bon Appetit!‘ is fittingly part of the entryway into the Julia Child’s Kitchen exhibit that features her copper pan collection and other kitchenware.


You Can’t Miss Seeing The Rooms in St. John’s

July 10, 2018
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Boasting a distinctive ‘fishing room’ exterior design and prime hill-top location on Bonaventure Avenue, it’s easy to spot The Rooms from most vantage points around St. John’s. The building’s creative architecture certainly caught my attention, but it was the interior treasures that really hooked me. The most compelling reason why you can’t miss seeing The Rooms is that the exhibits truly celebrate the unique culture, history and geography of Newfoundland and Labrador. Also, when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, the view of the city skyline and harbour is pretty spectacular!

The Rooms with a View

Even though St. John’s is one of the foggiest major centres in Canada, the spring and summer months are typically quite pleasant with plenty of clear days to peer out of The Rooms’ floor to ceiling windows and admire the view in the city streets and harbour below and further beyond The Narrows channel toward the ocean.

From colourful Jelly Bean row houses, to massive transport ships docked and waiting to be loaded/unloaded, to Cabot Tower atop Signal Hill and the Irving Oil Marine Terminal and fuelling berth located on Pier 23 and Pier 24 there is bound to be something eye-catching and photo-worthy.

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The Luck o’ Irish Roots

Back to the myriad treasures inside of The Rooms, one of the permanent exhibits is Talamh an Éisc: The Fishing Ground. This exhibit explores the province’s Irish roots going back to the late 1600s when intrepid migrants ventured across the Atlantic to participate in the burgeoning fishing trade, build onshore communities and settle into a new life away from the British Isles.

Fertile and Fickle Fishing Ground

After 500 years of reaping the rewards of one of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds, the luck o’ the Irish sadly ran out in the early 1990s when a moratorium was issued on the Northern Cod fishery. The government action was necessitated due to over-fishing in the region during the preceding 40 years that resulted in the drastic decrease of the Northern Cod species to the point of being on the verge of extinction. At present, the cod population is slowly making a recovery and limited fishing is taking place according to carefully established quotas. Hopefully continual monitoring efforts and regulation enforcement will ensure the survival of the species and industry.

Newfoundland and Labrador from A to Z

One of the special exhibits at The Rooms when I visited in 2017 was a series of hanging panels that described characteristics of Newfoundland and Labrador using each letter of the alphabet. Talk about a great way to learn about this highly distinctive region…I would add that A is also for Amazing and Awesome people!

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The Kitschy Kitchen Party

As highlighted in the A to Z panels, the Kitchen Party is a longtime tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador that typically takes the form of a raucous Saturday night gathering complete with food, music, dance, and plenty of fun. Along with family and friends, other special guests may include local “mummers” who come dressed in disguise looking to take a swig, dance a jig and continue on to their next merry party-crashing gig. Impromptu jam sessions are a common occurrence with musicians taking turns at solos or joining together in festive song. No instrument? No problem! Grab a pot and a wooden spoon, find the beat and play the night away.

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World War I Commemoration

During World War I, members of the Newfoundland Regiment bravely ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to join forces with the British Army. After being trained in England and Scotland, troops were deployed to battle fields in Gallipoli, Egypt and along the Western Front. The regiment sustained heavy losses between 1915 and 1918 but many survived to tell their harrowing stories, which are encapsulated in the Beaumont-Hamel and The Trail of the Caribou exhibit. Highlights of the exhibit include the Flower of Remembrance and Victoria Cross displays, as well as the numerous black and white images of young recruits preparing to do their part and serve their country in the Great War.

A Provincial Showcase

No doubt about it, The Rooms shows off the very best of Newfoundland and Labrador and it’s crystal clear how and why the earliest inhabitants and subsequent settlers came to make lasting connections with this special place. When in St. John’s, The Rooms really is a must-see!