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WASHINGTON -- I slipped out from the Renaissance Dupont Circle into a frozen wall of sleety rain, and it was perfect: Today was a museum day.
Of course, I had to safely manage the trips in between museums! The overnight icing had made icicles of my original plan to grab a bike from the pervasive Capitol Bikeshare program, so I set out on foot towards the National Mall.
Being the capitol of the United States, Washington, D.C., is a hotbed of cultural activities. Every cultural organization at least has an office here, which means that there is a critical mass of excellent arts here.
The National Mall is the center of most travelers’ cultural itineraries, with its world-class museums open free to the public. The Mall is home to the Smithsonian collection, which includes the National Gallery of Art, and the National Museums of American History, American Indian, African Art, African American History and Natural History.
Just off the mall there is a bevy of other precious institutions, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. These museums are all free, all of the time, so the lines can be long and everyone must go through security procedures.
However, on this particular journey, I was out to visit three of the few museums that actually charge admission. I wanted something a bit different, something more tongue-in-cheek, and something a little more exciting to symbolize the three things that DC represents for me: intrigue, suspense and current events.
Intrigue: The International Spy Museum
At any given moment there are 10,000 spies in Washington; a significant statistic, given Washington’s central place in world events.
I mulled this figure over in my head as I wandered the exhibitions. Could one of these people be posing as a tourist at the International Spy Museum? A spy checking out their industry museum, secretly smiling at all of the gadgets that she uses every day. How delightfully meta!
When I got bored scrutinizing the faces of unsuspecting Midwestern women trying to find their children amidst all the gadgetry, I marveled at the production design. They spared no expense in crafting an atmosphere appropriate to the story they were telling. From air ducts to secret bookcases, each exhibit reflects its content admirably.
I found myself wishing I had longer than just two hours here, because the in-depth coverage of how spies have infiltrated pretty much everything is super compelling.
Suspense: National Museum of Crime and Punishment
After discovering what spies do, and how they do it, I ambled a couple of blocks over to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment – a powerful reminder of the copious risks spies take on the ground.
The NMCP is straight out of "America’s Most Wanted," which is unsurprisingly filmed on-premises. This museum exists to allow you to experience all aspects of law enforcement – and to hopefully educate good citizens that will never break the law.
Regardless of the clear pro-police slant, I had a good time running amok amongst photos of gangsters and sketchbooks from serial killers. I stood in a lineup, got put in jail, escaped from jail, rode on a police Harley, drove a real-world simulator patrol car into a tree, shot up some perps in a real-world police training scenario, did enough pull-ups to qualify for the Police Academy, and pretended to help solve a murder in the CSI Crime Lab.
It was all in a day’s work!
After spending some time at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, the uneasy, mutually dependent relationship between the outlaws and those that chase them is crystal clear. The museum toes the line between glamorizing the notorious and emphasizing the morality of law enforcement. This cloaked symbiosis is just as fascinating as the people who live it out in the stories on the walls.
One thing is for sure: Crime does not pay, whichever way you slice, dice or shoot it!
Current events: the Newseum
Washington is the epicenter of the 24/7 news cycle. The White House has a dedicated platform for journalists from around the world. Newspaper, magazine, radio, television and Internet journalists all vie for the latest scoop in what is likely the city with the highest per capita ratio of journalists in the world.
Stories are made and broken here, with some of the most coveted titles in journalism being Chief White House Correspondent or Washington Bureau Chief. This is an ideal home for the Newseum, a unique museum dedicated to all things news. The museum is a hands-on look at the how and why news is made.
The Newseum traces newsgathering back to its origins more than five centuries ago, and takes visitors to the present-day multimedia electronic news of the Internet age. I particularly loved the ability to see newspapers from years of yore, all the way back to some of the very first papers post-printing press. Slide-out drawers give access to a myriad of different specimens in the Story of News Gallery.
I desperately wanted to take my turn in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, where you are challenged to create an accurate news report under deadline pressure. Unfortunately, I let my solo-traveler insecurity get the best of me. I would have been in that hot seat in a flash if I had someone to laugh with me – and not at me!
Fifteen theaters are peppered throughout the cavernous museum, giving insight into all kinds of ethical issues and shedding light on big news stories of the past. The sheer volume of content is overwhelming, and the museum gives you access to two consecutive days to accommodate even the most news-hungry visitor.
The 9/11 Exhibit is especially moving, with tears shed and shared with strangers. A towering piece of wreckage – the antennae from the very top of one of the towers – frames a headline wall, which has front pages from around the world on the days following the tragedy. It’s staggering.
Washington has enough cultural activities to fill far more than one trip. There are countless organizations here that are dedicated to preserving and sharing our national heritage, and spending at least one day experiencing this treasure trove allows for a deeper understanding of the goings-on of one of the most powerful countries in the world.