On Friday last, a friend, my husband, and I took a daytrip downtown to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Our objective was to take the DC Metro down to Metro Center, have lunch at M&S Grill, stroll down to the Natural History Museum and spend a leisurely afternoon checking out the Butterfly Pavilion. It was a good plan and it worked out splendidly. It turned out to be a gorgeous although cool day and perfect for a trip downtown.
Well, we did get off to a bit of a rocky start – the Metro train was waiting at the station and so we jumped into the first car just as the bing-bong alarm signaled the door was closing. And, of course, the first car was filled to the gills. I had hoped rush hour would be over but guess it goes longer than I had remembered. But, like seasoned pros, we hopped off at the first stop and got on the second car where there were plenty of seats and we could relax our way into the Capitol. And, it is open today – no Government shut-downs threatened for a few more months. I often wonder what other countries think of this country with its political disagreements and airing of dirty laundry on world-wide TV. I have heard it said that democracy isn’t pretty and I would have to agree – nope, not pretty at all – but so much better than the alternatives. But I digress.
Back on track (no Metro pun intended), we soon found ourselves outside Metro Center only to discover that the M&S Grill had closed down. Backup plan needed pronto. No problem. This is the Capitol of the whole United States and there are restaurants everywhere so we headed on down the street to The Hamilton. We were early but that worked to our advantage because we didn’t have reservations. And The Hamilton is a beautiful restaurant – think gentleman’s lodge or club or something like that – no, not the stripper kind – I mean the aristocratic kind you read about in books. The Hamilton is all white table cloths, crystal, leather upholstery, wood paneling, beautiful nature prints on the walls, soothing lighting and impeccable service – not to mention delicious food. Lunch was pretty darned good, if I must say so myself and I’m glad the M&S was closed come to think of it.
Out of the restaurant, down a few blocks and over a couple more and we found ourselves in front of the Natural History Museum. We were getting close on the time so we headed straight up to the second floor and into the IMAX Theater. We were given our nifty humongous red 3D glasses and found ourselves nice seats in the upper middle of the stadium style seating. I had worried about things being a bit too crowded on a Friday but ‘twas not the case. And minutes later, the movie began.
The Flight of the Butterflies (filmed in 3D) tells the story of the annual migration cycle of the monarch butterfly and of Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart, the scientists who studied the monarchs and discovered that monarchs do migrate and documented that migration path from the eastern US and Canada to Central Mexico. The mystery of the scientists’ lifelong study (40 years plus) to be solved was to find out where the monarchs went in winter. Dr. and Mrs. Urquhart developed a system of tagging the butterflies and enlisted volunteers everywhere (citizen scientists) to find and tag monarchs. They formed the Insect Migration Association which is still active today as the Monarch Watch. Ultimately, with the help of a couple in Mexico, Ken Brugger and Catalina Aguado, the winter home of the monarchs was discovered in the Transvolcanic Belt of Central Mexico. The film was good. I loved the 3D effects when the movie was showing the butterflies. I especially loved the feeling that you could reach out and touch the butterflies that seemed to be flying throughout the movie theater. But, otherwise, I thought the 3D effect was somewhat wasted on other scenes and sometimes the panning of the camera gave my stomach a little lurch so that I thought I might get a little seasick. There is a small fee (about $8) for the movie but I thought it was worth it.
After the movie, we headed on over to the Butterfly Pavilion. Now it has been some time since I visited one of the Smithsonian Museums and I am always amazed and overwhelmed at the size of the Institute and the museums. When I was in elementary school, the highlight of the each school year was a field trip. I remember two. One was a trip to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Being Atlanta, going to see Coca ColaTM might be a bit obvious but, for us, the highlight was getting an ice cold CokeTM and a little souvenir after the tour. I do not remember much about the tour but I do remember that CokeTM at the end and the little brass CokeTM key chain that I kept for many years. The other field trip I remember well was the trip to the Museum at Emory University which had an Egyptian exhibit that included a real live mummy. Now, of course, by definition, mummies are not alive but one never says “real” without “live” when one is in the fifth grade and wanting to emphasize something truly stupendous….believe you me, it was a real live mummy and nothing at all like the mummies in the horror movies that showed on the Friday Night Midnight Shocker each week. The mummy at Emory was all orangey and dirty looking – not a bit of clean white gauze anywhere. Other than these two and other art galleries and museums over the years, I have never visited a museum that is even close in size to the Smithsonian.
We always talk about the Institute as if it were just one big museum. It is not. The Smithsonian Institute (SI), founded in 1846, is, in fact, the world’s largest museum and research complex. It is huge and includes nineteen (19) separate museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine (9) research facilities. The Smithsonian had more than 30.3M (yep, that’s million) visitors in 2012 and includes over 137M objects, artwork, & specimens and more than 8.45M digitized records. So, when someone says they are going to the Smithsonian while they are in town, you might want to suggest that they narrow down the itinerary a bit. For this visit, we are, as noted above, at the Natural History Museum. Other museums routinely visited by tourists in town for a week or so would include the American History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and just maybe they might squeeze in one of the art galleries or maybe the American Indian Museum. (For the complete listing – http://www.si.edu/Museums )
And I am no less amazed on this visit although we are limiting our time to seeing the IMAX movie and seeing the Butterfly Pavilion. One thing that really amazes me is that there is this climate controlled, separate vault of sorts right smack dab in the middle of the second floor of the museum. We have visited butterfly gardens and houses before but none in the middle of another museum like this. It is not huge but it is big enough and is filled with a good assortment of tropical butterflies. No monarchs in the pavilion as they are native to the area and a month ago, you could probably see them outside the museum in the butterfly garden. Of the butterflies in the pavilion, I (just like everyone else) was captivated by the Blue Morpho. Unfortunately, the two Morphos that I saw just would not perch for even a moment so that I could get a photograph. So you’ll have to be content with what photos I managed to capture. Again, there is a small fee ($6) for entering the Pavilion…..otherwise, the Natural History Museum is free.
Not wanting to leave exactly yet, I suggested that we look in on the gems & jewels exhibit and strolled into what I thought was the gem display area. My husband kindly advised me that I had wandered into the souvenir shop for gems and was not actually in the display area. (Silly me.) But that tells you how big the place is overall…..the souvenir shop was pretty danged big. We found the Rocks and Gemstones area and spent some time meandering through the exhibit. We would have been there hours had we stopped to read every sign or look at every rock or crystal or gemstone in the place. We did stop to touch the oldest known rock (gneiss) on Earth at 3.96B years old. (And, yes, you can touch it – look at the sign beside the rock. It says “please touch”.)
And the crystals simply fascinated me – they are so very lovely. I wondered about people who attribute special powers to crystals and ancient tribes who felt that they could use crystals to communicate with the gods. My husband notes that early radios used crystals that vibrated at a particular frequency to facilitate radio communications. So maybe there was something to the old legends and stories after all. (Go to Wikipedia and search for crystal radio and read the article – rudimentary but organic materials needing no power source to build a passive radio receiver. Food for thought – you couldn’t talk to the gods but they could talk to you or to your high priest.)
No visit to the gems exhibit at Natural History would be complete without seeing the Hope Diamond. I mean it was just right there and would take only a few moments to slip through the doorway and take a quick look. Well, it was a bit more crowded in there than I had realized and nothing is every easy but we did got in to see the Diamond without too much trouble. I’m afraid my photo is not too good as it was taken relatively quickly as the display rotated the necklace around so that it could be seen from all sides of the exhibit and the gem looked a little dirty on this day…but it was very impressive at 42.52 carats. It is known more for its flawless clarity, blue color, and history more so than for its size.
Thinking about history, the hope diamond existed more than a billion years ago – before dinosaurs and before humans. It was discovered sometime around 1668 (before the United States) in India. It was originally about 112 carats which was cut down to 67 1/8 while owned by Louis XIV. It was lost for about 20 years after the French Revolution and later showed up in England. You can read the full history here. The Hope Diamond is surrounded by 16 white diamonds and held by a platinum chain with another 46 diamonds….quite a piece of jewelry. There is a funny story about it that shows how the uber-wealthy do not think the same way as us poor hicks do. It is said that one of the last owners before the stone was donated to the Institute kept the necklace hidden under the seat cushions on the sofa for safe-keeping and has a photo of her dog wearing the necklace. Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity – nothing special about this old thing – it’s been hanging around the house for years.
Quite a necklace, quite a story, and quite an interesting day.
If you would like more information about Flight of the Butterflies and the Smithsonian Butterfly Pavilion and Museums:
Smithsonian Institute: http://www.si.edu/
Natural History Museum: http://www.si.edu/Museums/natural-history-museum
IMAX Theaters: http://www.si.edu/imax/
Flight of the Butterflies site at Smithsonian: http://www.si.edu/Imax/Movie/71
Butterfly Pavilion: http://spotabutterfly.com/
Video of Butterfly Pavilion: http://www.voanews.com/content/exhibit_highlights_butterfly_beauty_diversity_value_to_ecosystem/1629981.html
Flight of the Butterflies Movie Site: http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/home/
Flight of the Butterflies – Secrets of Filming: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Majz0IAc9Lw
Free Book for children – ITunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/flight-butterflies-enhanced/id620240557?mt=11
SI Gems and Rocks: http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_0_0.html
Hope Diamond: http://mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm
History of the Hope Diamond: http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_1_1_1.html
Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart: http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/discovery-story/
Wikipedia Crystal Radio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio