I’m just about a regular townie by now. Near summer’s close, I’ve been to the end of four separate Metro lines. I’ve listened to local political radio talk shows. A polite Japanese tourist asked me where the Washington Monument was. I was sitting on a bench eating an empanada and, without a word spoken, did no more than turn my head about 30 degrees and pointed to my right, but still, it was a moment. And the clincher: I’ve got a favorite spot. It’s this courtyard in between the American Art and National Portrait Galleries.
That’s two connected galleries, several blocks north of the Mall and right south of Chinatown. Every time I try to describe where it is, though, people excitedly say, “Yeah yeah, up by the Spy Museum right?” Everyone knows the Spy Museum. But for my stringent “no more pun” pledge of ‘06, all I want to mutter in response is "It’s no secret."
The courtyard is covered on top with curved glass panels and it’s probably 50 yards by 75 yards big and it’s in the middle of the two five-story buildings. The roof is way up there, so it feels like you’re outside. There’s a café in one corner and tables for writing and eating. The ground, the floor, is soft but tiled, and the tiles are gray and seem like granite except for that almost cushiony feel. I think they’re linoleum, like the original kind of linoleum from linseed oil before they replaced it with vinyl and such. I’m not architecturally astute enough to know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. I’m a real linoleum advocate now.
The more important point is this: the courtyard has an otherworldly quiet-but-white-noised ambience. Sitting there and writing tricks me into being productive. It also puts me into a Robert Altman film, with overlapping dialog everywhere and always though it’s never domineering or obtrusive. I can usually figure four or six different languages in that calm din. Looking around, pants color seems to indicate where they’re all from: orange denim on Germans; green on Brazilians; and Japanese seem to like white capris. Or black. Or russet. My taxonomy sort of breaks down quickly.
Another reason to love the courtyard? The art museums and their libraries and curators are a whole different breed for me than those at American History. I met one of their curators, a guy who knows a hell of a lot about landscape portraiture and took quickly to my interest in working landscapes and agro-food history. The same conversation with friends at American History mostly got me blank stares and I was starting to question myself. But talking to him, we get into a conversation that leads us to international art collecting and exhibitions, from France to England to Taiwan and Japan, and global currents, then about the traffic of ideas and materials from here to there, of how different people see the land and the world.
That was the same day the Japanese tourist sought the hard-to-miss Washington Monument, and I was wondering why some people see things right off when away from home, while others look blankly past. It’s now a binding theme for this entire museum experience, the tension I saw from the start between those who are supposed to be in a place and those who are not. Now I talk about it as that difference between how we see things when we’re home and when we’re away (another country, another city, another museum).
I’d stumbled onto the Greatest Spot in the City Courtyard in early summer, but only sometime later realized Chinatown was right there just across the street. I only figured this out after meeting friends for dinner one night, circling the block as we looked for authentic fare and I pointed up to say, oh look, the Greatest Spot in the City’s in there, inside past the Obama “Hope” poster, the original (it’s bigger than I thought). We then proceeded to eat at a tapas bar. The next night I met a temporarily mustachioed environmental lawyer for dinner. We had Italian.
There’s a Research Fellow from Paris here. Her office is across the hall. She’s working on some project about images of American identity through the 9/11 tragedies. She’s French, and the 9/11 collection is still in-the-making, and it’s American. You knew that. So she’s had friction with those who are protective of the new collection, which, I am led to believe, is only partially declassified and stored somewhere else for now.
I’m led to believe that because I was taking digital pictures of some old ads in the Archives Center once when a guy in a Redskins hat and a keychain on his belt loop rolled a cart of boxes towards the door. He was talking to a staffer. I looked over and saw that the boxes had 9/11 stickers on them, images of the twin towers and a wavy American flag and the like. The two were talking about whether the boxes were ready to go back, waiting to be fully declassified. “Yes, she won’t be using them.” When I got back to my office, N., the Parisian, was distraught that they’d taken her material away. Some people would think it’s good to have a foreigner look from beyond to observe Americans’ sense of self; others, collection holders let’s call them, think the opposite.
I’d been talking that week about the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt to my new friend at American Art when I found N. despondent over access to the collection. I ventured small talk and maybe a distraction by talking about Bierstadt, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child from Germany but also lived in Europe for a time in adulthood (and France is in Europe, right? ergo, she’d be interested).
Bierstadt painted a series of amazing portraits in the later 1800s, one of which was Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868). It hangs right there in the American Art Gallery, just a skip away from the serene Courtyard, and it’s truly immense. Sublime, they say. You have to stay with it for some time to take it all in, as was the artist’s intent. It’s a German-American’s view of the great American West, an idealized view of a wild expanse that, it turns out, Bierstadt painted from Rome. He’d been to the West, and he painted quite a bit, it isn’t like he made it up from nothing. But the projection he offered in this particular portrait was rendered from a distance, from outside and beyond.
Later, I’m sitting there in the courtyard trying to take stock of my findings these past months. It’s a weird triangulation going on: not just the cultural views that differ—the Japanese tourist and the French researcher and the German-American artist and the Italian and Spanish food in Chinatown—but the temporal ones, the changes over time, that stock in trade of the historian. That “the past is a foreign country” is a top-tier historian’s cliché. Everyone looking to make sense of the past sees it as a foreigner. Fair enough. But that isn’t really different than how I see things everyday right now.