Washington DC: City of Museums and Dead People

Published Sydney, 7 January 2007, in the Epoch Times, a Chinese – English newspaper in Sydney Australia.

.Washington DC has some of the most impressive buildings, and the biggest collection of museums I have ever seen. It is also a city preoccupied with death, assassinations and wars.  On my first day, I am surprised to learn the Smithsonian Institution is not merely a museum, but actually a group of over a  dozen separate museums, with a collection so vast that only 1  per cent of its total collection is open to the public at any time.  The museums are stretched along the 2 mile long, 400 foot wide National Mall, a grassed area from the Lincoln Memorial to the congress building, and all the museums are free. The areas  around the mall, the White House,  congress building, and the various war monuments are well policed. Washington’s nick-name as the murder capitol of the US shouldn’t put the visitor off.
A preoccupation with death permeates Washington. The theatre where President Lincoln was shot is preserved, with a thick glass barrier fencing off the box in which he was sitting. The house across the road where he was taken after the shooting is preserved, and you can look for free into the bedroom where he died. As I stand there I have mixed feelings: on the one hand,  I am drawn to see the place because of its historical significance, but on the other, I dislike participating in the voyeurism of death.

On a bus trip, we visit the Arlington National Ceremony. Graves and headstones stretch for what seems like miles in every direction: yet the cemetery has enough space to accommodate the war dead for another 50 years, our guide claims.  One soldiers marches up and down in front of the tombs of the unknown soldiers for an hour. 21 steps one way, 21 one steps the other. Every hour they change the guard. A sergeant appears and shouts (yes, shouts) at the audience to be silent and observe a respectful attitude during the  changing of the guard.

A new solder appears, is inspected, and takes up marching the 21 steps. The previous soldier and the sergeant march off. There are no colourful uniforms like Buckingham palace, no flags, and no band. I can’t help thinking that the British would have put on a more impressive show for their dead.

The bus takes us outside DC to Alexandria, and I sit on the bench where George Washington sat in church 230 years ago. His family ‘box’, along with the whole church, has been preserved as a national attraction. It’s in the main street, easy to find, and is disabled accessible.

A few miles on is Mt Vernon, where Washington had his home estate.   The estate has 8.000 acres, his 15 room house, slave quarters, and his tomb.

In his white wooden timber house you can see the room and bed in which Washington died, from what today would be called a strep throat.

On the return journey, our buss passes the narrowest house in the US – a mere seven foot wide and yet occupied for decades.  The builder saved on costs and space – since the external walls of the adjoining buildings were solid brick, , he didn’t bother with side walls himself.

His inside walls are the surface of the neighbors walls.  It’s a surprising  building, if only because someone had the gall to build it, and someone else must be willing to live there.

At least the bus driver doesn’t tell us someone famous died there.


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