Visiting the Newest Member of the Smithsonian Family

Sunday was a gorgeous day in our nation’s capital. The sun was shining, a few wispy clouds dotted the skyline and after a week of rain, everyone emerged from their homes to enjoy what might be one of the last 75 degree days of the year. I was lucky enough to have a ticket to the brand new Smithsonian museum in my hand, one that I had signed up for months ago. Tickets to the African-American History and Culture Museum are hot items around the city right now, (there have been reports of ticket scalping to the tune of $200 for *free* tickets!) but with my name on one, it was time to go check out the week-old addition to the Smithsonian family.

Outside was irresistible, so I tied on my Chucks and headed down to the National Mall on foot, less than a two mile walk from our Chinatown apartment. The building itself is a dark copper color, with intricately patterned metal plates over huge glass windows, layered in a tiered fashion. It feels a bit like the building is growing right out of the ground, like the solid trunk of a massive tree. The design is entirely different from anything else on the Mall, making a striking silhouette in among the more traditional white marble-esque buildings around it.

Approaching the building, I was horrified to see a massive line, but as it turns out, the timed ticket entrance was on the other side of the building.  Apparently this is the “front,” which does make sense as it is the side facing the Mall, but I’ve only walked passed it on Constitution, so always thought of it facing that direction. Happily, I was wrong. (I am still not sure what the huge line on the backside was for- maybe folks trying to get walk-in tickets?)  Getting into the building turned out to not be a problem at all (same security as all of the museums- a quick swirl through my backpack with the plastic wand of power), but that wasn’t the end of the lines. I went straight to the main information counter, hoping to get some suggestion as how best to navigate not only the enormous building, but also the masses of humanity who were also there to visit.

Short answer: more lines.

Even with a timed pass, the lower level exhibits dedicated to the history of African-Americans in the United States had a two hour queue. I though the guy at the desk might be a bit hyperbolic, so I went down the escalator, thinking I’d give it a chance.


That line was at least two hours long. Snaking, snaking, snaking. It made Disneyland lines look like just a bit of idling.

Since I am DC-based for at least the next year, I decided that I’d save downstairs for my next visit (I’m sure I’ll be back with friends and family members as they come east for a visit), and headed to the top floor to work my way down. Floors three and four are mainly dedicated to culture, which was fascinating. In particular, I loved the exhibits on fashion (clothing, millinery, hair) and the path of African-American literature. The walls are filled with amazing and powerful quotes, and I was particularly impressed with the use of video throughout the museum. (My guess is these will be much more enjoyable once the visitor level evens out a bit. It was hard to stand and watch a fascinating video about natural/straightened hairstyles when I felt like I was blocking the flow of traffic. The constant movement through the displays reminded me a bit of visiting Mao in Beijing or the pandas in San Diego. Keep the line moving!)

I skipped through level two rather quickly, as it is very kid-centric with a lot of hands-on activities and digital explorations, heading back to the main level to hit up the gift shop. I couldn’t let the day pass without sending postcards home to the nieces and nephews.

Again, a line.

Yes, a line for the gift shop.

I had to queue up for about fifteen minutes, as they were letting people in to the store in small batches. Once inside, I got my awesome postcards and lined up (again!) to check out.

Summary of the new African American History and Culture Museum:

Pros: Great exhibits, lots of visually interesting displays, diverse coverage of the African-American experience

Cons: Lines, lines and did I mention, lines?

If you are headed to Washington DC anytime in the near future, go online and get your tickets now. They are doing timed tickets through March, at least, although I imagine and demand goes down, the building will be less crammed, especially if you can visit on a weekday. But, this is a must-see for all; a powerful addition to the National Mall and the Smithsonian family of museums.

 “As Americans, we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country; who led armies into battle and waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power. But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.” –President Barak Obama

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Mesozoic Musings

Q: What do you get when you cross ancient four-legged creatures and a Scooby-Doo-style haunted park?

A: The ZiGong Dinosaur Museum!

Last weekend, as a part of my ongoing CLO outing series, I spent Saturday about three hours outside of Chengdu in a city known for its spicy food, its salt production and its dinosaurs. (What a combination!)  I’d like to report that all three meshed together well, but although we did have spicy bullfrog for lunch, there was no dino meat to be had and spice made much more of an appearance at our table than did the salt.

For a year now, I’ve been hearing about how great the ZiGong Dinosaur Museum is and that I definitely needed to take a trek out there before leaving Sichuan. So, with such strong recommendations to back it up, I planned a Saturday event to go see what all the fuss was about. Our travel group included lots of kids, some of whom were dressed in head to toe dinosaur swag, ready to visit the heart of their obsessions.

As with everything in China, I should have known to take the glowing recommendations with a grain of (ZiGong) salt.  The museum is definitely worth the bus ride out and I’m thrilled to have seen all it has to offer, but I will not need to make a return trip before I exit China in the spring. I’ve never been somewhere that so perfectly meshes fascinating knowledge with a creepy park vibe. (Wait. I’ll revise that sentiment. If you’ve been to Haw Par Villa in Singapore, you’ve got an idea of the level of weirdness I’m talking about. While Haw Par Villa centers on Chinese mythology and the tenants of Confucianism, through acres of macabre statues, ZiGong sticks  with violent Mesozoic-era dioramas, but they share strong ties in their particularly peculiar takes on these subjects.)

The ZiGong museum is actually a highly rated center, as it holds the distinction of being one of only three dinosaur museums in the world to include a dig site. (The other two are Vernal, Utah and Alberta, Canada.) CNN rated the ZiGong Museum as one of the top ten dinosaur museums in the world, but I think whoever wrote the article did their research from a distance. The thing is, there are some amazing fossils at the site, which sits atop the Dashanpu dig area, including eighteen complete skeletons in a burial site and a huge number of partially intact remains. Plus, having the actual dig site as a part of the museum, where patrons can walk through the area and see the bones still in the ground is awesome.

But, the greatness can be easily overlooked by the other randomness around the fossils. For example, in the fossil hall where the dinosaurs have been recreated in diorama-type exhibits, an inordinate number of them showcase the carnivorous meals of the various creatures. (Yes, I know the killing and eating of other animals is a part of Simba’s Disney-taught “circle of life,” but I’m not sure it needs to be the focal point of so many exhibits! We get it! Dinosaurs ate one another!! At some point, I began to debate the possible merits of dinosaur meat vs. the bullfrog that showed up at lunch…) I had to laugh when I first walked into the hall because I was standing in the doorway, excitedly taking in the huge displays, when I looked straight up to see a dinosaur skeleton dangling from the mouth of another dinosaur, directly above my head. Eww! I also particularly liked the display that had a tiny (in comparison), quick-looking dinosaur speeding away from the one behind it that was baring giant teeth. The sign in front gave information about the time period that these creatures lived in, as well as details about their habits. It then ended with the words, “Speed is life.”  Yes! For that little guy, speed is definitely life!

After enjoying the rather grisly displays in the main hall, and wandering through the dig site itself, I spent some time taking in the posters about the discovery of the fossils and the history of the site. The photographs of the paleontologist from the 1980s were interesting, but my favorite part can be chalked up to a translation error. While most of the signs talked about the study of dinosaurs as paleontology, a few instead substituted “dinosaurology” as a synonym. This is my new “when I grow up” goal- to be a dinosauroligist!  And really, I have to give them credit, as it does make sense. I actually had to stop and think to make sure it really wasn’t a real word. But no, it’s not. Sadly, dinosaurology is not a real thing. Too bad…

Wandering on from the various displays and digs, I was about ready to call it a day for my inaugural visit, but before I could make my way out of the building, I spotted the highlight of the trip- a dinosaur you could ride!  That’s right! It was a rubberish-feeling, horse-sized dinosaur with a metal saddle mounted on its back. With a rickety wooden stepladder as leverage, I quickly clambered to the top for a photo-op to commemorate my fantastic journey through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Because really, what historical museum outing doesn’t end with a ride on a long-extinct giant reptile?

I now have a new museum to add to my “favorites” list:

1)      Chengdu Panda Reserve Museum- it includes a diorama display of animals that look like they are made out of my grandmother’s couch, giant vats of panda sperm and an amazing piece of artwork displaying the prowess of the battle panda

2)      Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei- Filled with the narrative of how wonderful the sultan has been since birth and a massive amount of gifts given to him by the VIPs of the world

3)      ZiGong Dinosaur Museum- See above!

But, the most important thing I learned on Saturday came from one of the younger members of our excursion. As we walked towards the main exhibit hall, through a series of hillsides covered in dinosaur statues, he scurried up behind his mom, exclaiming, “Mom, I need to stay in the middle of the herd, that way I won’t be eaten.”  It’s brilliant advice from one so young- if you’re little, stick with the herd, for the young and weak are the most likely to become lunch. When I’m back in the classroom, this will be my new field trip rule- stick with the herd, or be eaten! Easy enough.

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Melting My Way Through Chinese Culture

At least once a month, I try to plan a Saturday excursion for our Chengdu officer and families that gets us out of town for a few hours and incorporates a bit Chinese language learning at a variety of levels. In the past year, as part of this series of CLO events, I’ve visited the ancient irrigation systems of DuJiangYan and the miniature Great Wall in Luo Dai, as well as museums dedicated to foot binding, the Flying Tigers and Chengdu history/archeology. Each of these little trips has been fabulous, mainly because it is a great excuse to get out of the city for a day! (Posts about each of those outing can be found here, here and here.)

I have to admit to a bit of a CLO failure on my part this month though. You see, I had this great trip planned to go to AnRen Old Town, an area about ninety minutes outside of Chengdu proper. And, on paper, it all looked great. What I didn’t factor in to the planning, that I know better to have thought about, but for some reason it never crossed my mind, was the weather. Sichuan is known for its spicy food, but is just as famous in China for its equally spicy summer weather. For the last few weeks, we’ve been having a heat wave, with daily temperatures in the 90s, which means once the high humidity counts are factored in, puts us sitting at a heat index of well over 100 degrees many afternoons.  This balmy weather is exactly what I walked our travel group into on Saturday. I knew it was going to be a long day when I sat on a bench near the consulate at 8AM, waiting for everyone to arrive, panting. When my legs were shimmering with sweat even though I wasn’t moving a muscle, there was no doubt that the day would be an adventure!

So, while I would love to show you photographs of the maze-like passageways and intricate carvings of Liu Manor, a pre-Cultural Revolution era mansion turned museum, instead, my digital camera is filled with pictures of shady spots and cool caverns!  As I wandered the manor grounds on my own (after dropping everyone off at the entrance to the museum, we made plans to meet in a highly prized shady spot of the courtyard at noon), I spent an inordinate amount of time in the opium cellar, not because I was particularly interested (although, I must admit, the size of the storage area was quite impressive!), but rather because it was a stone building, naturally insulated from the heat and humidity outside. (I can only imagine how important to keep one’s opium cool and dry.) I also spent a good deal of time enjoying a back courtyard, used mainly by servants, but which now displays an impressive array of bamboo and flowering trees, neither of which I needed to pay an entrance price to see in China, through which I was more than happy to wander. (Ooze may be a better word to describe my movements by the end of the day!)

While my nearly head-exhaustion inducing Saturday was more of an adventure that I had expected (it was hot, but it really was a great day!), I can’t say that was my biggest failure when it comes to CLO outing this last year. The day I loaded up nearly half of the consulate community to go commune with pandas and ended up at the epicenter of an earthquake will always win that award. Nevertheless, as I start to plan my September event, I’ll definitely be looking for more weather-appropriate options!

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It’s CLO Outing Time Again!

If you come to Chengdu, there are two images that will be burned to your retinas within days of touching down, two things you can’t travel more than a few miles in the city without seeing: pandas (of course) and the city seal. The pandas speak for themselves- adorable (although evolutionarily backwards) creatures just begging you to pay $300 to hold them. (Yup! That’s the going rate in Chengdu right now. $300USD so you can be completely covered in blue plastic and hold the little critter for just long enough to get the photo snapped and then away it goes. It comes to about a Benjamin per minute.) The city seal, on the other hand, is less well-known outside of Chengdu, but once you touch down in the city, you’ll see it everywhere. The golden ring adorns the side  of the ubiquitous green cabs (well, ubiquitous when you are trying to cross the street, absolutely absent when you need one to get home from work), it sits atop NiJia Qiao (commonly called the “A Bridge” by consulate folks) and pops up on a variety of signs and billboards around town.

In 2001, as Chengdu was just starting to hit its construction stride, workers stumbled upon a large area filled with elephant bones and the remains of an ancient civilization- right in the middle of the city! Needless to say, construction came to an abrupt halt and archeological excavation commenced. Within that site, scientists found numerous jade and bronze pieces, as well as the now famous city seal- a piece of sliver-thin gold foil carved with a sun in the center, surrounded by four stylized birds.

After having this golden emblem appear around every corner, I figured it was time I made the (very short!) trek out to the JinSha Museum to have a look for myself, and what better way to do that than to organize a CLO outing!  So, Saturday morning, I gathered about fifteen other consulate community members, we loaded up in a bus and headed across town to discover for ourselves the newly discovered site.

If you’re in Chengdu on vacation for more than just a day or two, I would definitely recommend the museum. It starts with the actual dig site, where elephant tusks still protrude from the hard earth and visitors can walk through the carefully gridded work space. Then, it is on to the main building which is now home to the all-important city seal, several other gold foil masks and an array of jade and bronze carvings.

But, if you are LIVING in Chengdu, I would recommend the site not for the museum itself (although it is nice and worth a visit or two), but for the grounds on which it sits. In a city where sunshine is rare and large expanses of grass even rarer, it was amazing to walk through the front gates, past a beautiful water fountain and into what looked like a park that could be found in any American city. There was grass and trees and benches and room to run! The 80RMB entrance fee may seem a little steep, but if I had young ones, I’d wait for a day where the air monitor readings were moderate, pack up my crew, throw together a basket of food and head out to the museum for lunch in the park. The day out would be worth the ticket price!

What’s black and white and cute all over? Pandas! What’s round and gold and ringed with birds? The city seal! Put them together and what do you have? CHENGDU!

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