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by Karoline Cullen
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

"Stop, this area is closed." He holds up his right hand. "Turn around. Walk away."

We take in his white shirt, dark sunglasses and severe expression. "But we're just going through the park."

"Turn around. Walk away."

"Can't we stand here and watch?"

"No, the area is closed. Turn around. Walk away."

"You're not going to tell us what's going on?"

"No. Turn around. Walk away."

"We can't stand here with you and watch?"

He shakes his head and steps closer, so we obediently turn and leave. He follows to ensure we do not stroll in front of the White House today. We are disappointed but then it is not every day we get shooed away by a member of the Secret Service Police.

Welcome to Washington, D.C. My husband Gary and I are here for three days of museums, monuments and memorials. Many are on the Mall, a two mile long, garden-like, National Park with the Washington Monument in the middle. From there to the West lie the monuments and memorials; to the East, the museums of the Smithsonian Institution and the Capitol Building.

First stop is the National Air and Space Museum. Standing by Apollo 11's Command Module Columbia, we find its small size astounding. Something no larger than an old Volkswagen Beetle carried the first men to walk on the moon and their pilot to lunar orbit and back. John Glen's Mercury capsule, in which he orbited Earth, is even smaller. Hanging from the ceiling above is the Spirit of St. Louis. Down the hall is the original Wright Flyer. In gallery after gallery, there are warplanes, passenger planes, mail planes, rockets, satellites, telescopes, a lunar landing module and an exhausting amount more.

In the early 1800s, British scientist James Smithson left his immense fortune of half a million dollars to the United States. No one knows why he bequeathed such a generous gift to a country he never visited. The money was to be used to found "at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." After years of heated debate in Congress, the Smithsonian was established in 1846.

The Air and Space Museum is one of nineteen in the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex. Whatever your interest: art, science, history, design, culture, aviation, gardens, sculpture, or animals at the National Zoo; there is a free museum to visit. After the Air and Space Museum, we admire the curving architectural lines of the American Indian Museum and listen to chants echoing in the foyer. We pop into the American History Museum to see the original Star Spangled Banner, Julia Child's kitchen, and Lincoln's hat, which he was wearing when he was assassinated. At the Natural History museum we pass the elephant in the rotunda en route to the dinosaur exhibit and the 52 carat, deep blue, Hope Diamond. We hardly have time to see more. I venture you could spend a year visiting a different exhibit each day and still not see them all.

The Newseum, an airy, modern building next door to the Canadian Embassy on the Mall, is dedicated to five centuries of the gathering and reporting of news. I am moved almost to tears at several exhibits. We stand by a piece of the World Trade Center from 9/11 and browse the display for the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination. A staggering number of names fill the Journalists' Memorial Wall and we study the full collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. You know those rarely feature happy events.

We take a break on the outdoor terrace and enjoy a splendid view past fluttering Canadian flags towards the Capitol Building.

At the Lincoln Memorial, I feel dwarfed at the foot of the stern President sitting on his chair. My eyes follow his gaze across the tree lined reflecting pool to the WWII Memorial and the Washington Monument. The vista is much grander than television or photographs can relay.

To the North is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a pair of black walls etched with more than 55,000 names. To the South, the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. looks across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial.

The memorials are impressive during the day but we enjoy them more lit at night. The play of light and shadow on the facades dramatically accentuates the details. While sitting at Lincoln's feet, we ponder if the area fronting the White House will be closed tomorrow.


On the Web:

The Smithsonian:

The National Mall and Memorial Parks:

National Register of Historic Places:

The Newseum is not part of the Smithsonian but the tickets are good for two days:

Washington DC Tourism:

Recommended: The Embassy Circle Guest House:

PHOTOS: Photography by Cullen Photos

1. Apollo 11 Lunar Command Module Columbia - K. Cullen photo
2. Newseum - K. Cullen photo
3. Canadian Embassy Flags and the Capitol Building - K. Cullen photo
4. The author at the Lincoln Memorial with the reflecting pool, WWII and Washington Monuments in the background - G. Cullen photo
5. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - K. Cullen photo
6. WWII Memorial - K. Cullen photo
7. Lincoln at night - K. Cullen photo

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