The wonder that is the Smithsonian

Regular readers may have noticed a reduction in blog postings. This is because I have been spending some time with family and friends. First my daughter came for an extended visit and after she left we went to Washington DC to show some of the sights there to relatives who were visiting from Sri Lanka.

I like Washington. In the short time we were in DC, we managed to get quite a lot done. We drove around and showed them the various landmarks such as the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and the like. For me, the best parts of DC are the presidential memorials and the Smithsonian museums. We took in the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King memorials but did not have time to see the FDR one, though I had seen it last year. These are all tastefully done and the National Parks Service deserves to be commended for them.

We also visited the Vietnam, Korean, and World War II memorials. There are other war memorials that we did not see and it struck me how much of the history of the US is dominated by wars. It is not something to be proud of.

The Smithsonian museums are a real treat. We visited the Art, American History, Sculpture Garden, Air and Space, and Natural History museums though we could not do them justice in the limited time we had. At the last one, it was quite thrilling for me to see one of slabs from the Burgess Shale that showed the fossils of the Cambrian Explosion that occurred about 500 million years ago and had such an impact on our understanding of evolution.

At the museum, we also saw a 3D IMAX film about dinosaurs and this was spectacular. It was a mixture of live action plus animations and the 3D CGI special effects were extremely well done with the animations of the dinosaurs seeming to come so close to you that they seemed to be just near the tip of your nose. The live action shots of the Gobi desert and the New Mexico plateaus where so many fossils have been found were also magnificent. If we were there for a longer time, I would have gone to see some of the other 3D films too.

The museum and the city were packed with tourists and especially school children since it is the season for school tours to visit DC. I suspect that many of those children, and even some of their teachers, are young Earth creationists. As I watched them, I wondered what they made of the fact that the Smithsonian exhibits all assumed an ancient Earth and evolution and there was no mention of gods or Noah’s Ark or any other such nonsense. I know that their parents and teachers probably inoculate them with ‘explanations’ about why scientists are wrong. But even the most thoroughly indoctrinated must be a little unsettled by the fact that no recognition is given to their worldview.


  1. johnson catman says

    The creationist’s kids probably go to Ken Ham’s ark park next just to reinforce the beliefs.

  2. Johnny Vector says

    Next time you’re here, I’d be happy to give you a tour of a certain space center. Sadly, the primary mirror for JWST is no longer visible in the clean room, but there’s still some cool stuff.

  3. Mano Singham says

    paul collier,

    I said many, not most, and that was simply an inference based on the fact that a considerable fraction of the US population is creationist.

  4. says

    If you get a chance, you may wish to visit the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air and Space museum, which is out in Herndon near Dulles airport. It’s amazing. It’s where they put the stuff that won’t fit in the little museum on the mall.

    And, if you’re interested in spy tech and are flying in or out of BWI, the national cryptologic museum, right next to NSA headquarters, is a really really interesting place. It’s nearish to BWI. It’s pretty fun -- staffed mostly by retired cryppies and comint guys. Every so often someone walks in and they do a secret handshake and start pointing at things in the cases and whispering to the staff and giggling.

    I went years ago with a friend who was amused by the “modern computer cryptography” exhibit, which featured a DEC Vax in part of the display. My friend chuckled a bit and later told me, “that was my computer.” Apparently he was the system administrator of the box that got decommissioned and wound up in the museum. That has to be a … weird feeling.

  5. says

    the Cambrian Explosion

    By the way, even though I’m not a paleontologist, I try to avoid the term “cambrian explosion” -- I usually say something like “… Cambrian period. Oh, the Cambrian period lasted about 100 million years.”

  6. Mano Singham says


    I did visit the Hernson museum some years ago and it was amazing. Unfortunately, we did not have time this time around to go there.

  7. doublereed says

    Yea, DC is a lot of fun, especially with the fact that all the museums are free. I’m so used to it that when I go places and have to pay I’m always slightly confused.

    Other great museums are the Newseum and the Spy Museum, but those you do have to pay for. The Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum you can literally spend at least a day entirely there because there’s so much to see. But it sounds like you saw quite a lot in a short amount of time, so that’s very exciting.

    Were there more things about the museums and memorials that struck you in particular?

  8. Mano Singham says


    I particularly like the Lincoln Memorial. The view of the reflecting pool is magnificent and there is an air of calm and peacefulness that encourages just sitting on the top steps and contemplating. The Jefferson and MLK memorials have the same effect, you feel you can spend the day pretty much sitting there and watching the water. The FDR memorial is more like a history lesson, and so evokes different feelings. But they are all good.

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