Thursday, 18 July 2013

Washington's Capitol and its Presidents

A reflective Capitol out front
OK OK One more posting on Washington! Just too much to write about DC!

The ornate ceiling inside is very impressive
Another must visit is Capitol Hill. It's very impressive to see it in person after seeing it off in the distance when TV reporters talk about Congress.

Inside, there's a relatively new visitor's centre (opened in 2008) in the basement, where tourists are first ushered into a relatively fast-moving line to get into an auditorium to first watch a non-partisan film about the Capitol and what politicians do there.

Then we got a bright young guide called Mackenzie (a young woman), who gave us a tour of the place where we all wore headsets that could let us hear her talk into her microphone. This was definitely a relief from mainland Chinese groups with guides using megaphones to broadcast their knowledge.
Rosa Parks is the latest addition to Capitol

Basically the areas we could see could be a museum rather than an office for working politicians; we saw statues placed everywhere, giving historical context to the place. But the main theme was "e pluribus unum" or "out of many one" which is the phrase of the Seal of the United States.

The Rotunda featured statues of a who's who of American presidents in no particular order, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Regan, Gerald Ford, Andrew Jackson, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. There are other non-presidents, such as one of the founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King Jr and three women in recognition of their right to vote.

Lincoln's photograph in the Portrait Gallery
We were then ushered into the former House of Representatives and Mackenzie explained to us that has the number of states grew, the room got too crowded. But there was another reason, thanks to the room's arched ceilings that created the parabolic effect. We stood at one end without our headphones on while Mackenzie went to the other side and in her speaking voice we could hear her quite clearly. And as a result people had to talk louder and louder, making the room too noisy!

So in 1857 the House of Representatives was moved to its current house chamber and former room is now filled with again more statues. Each state is allowed to contribute two statues in bronze or marble.

Two interesting statues are the one of Florida's John Corrie, the inventor of air conditioning, and the recently installed Rosa Parks who is not a contribution from any state. And most suitably, she is sitting with a look of determination that she will gain the same rights as white people.
Norman Rockwell's depiction of Richard Nixon

If you want to see your representatives in action, you have to find their office across the street and get a pass from them before entering, and likewise foreigners go to a special office and must show their passports to get a special pass too.

Another interesting place to visit is the Smithsonian's Portrait Gallery, and in there the most interesting room is the one featuring the presidential portraits. There are of course many portraits of Abraham Lincoln, but we also saw ones of Washington, a very kind portrayal of Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, an energetic but what looks like a half-finished portrait of John F Kennedy, and a bizarre one of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close that needs to be looked at from a distance. There's one of George W Bush too, but very bland.
An abstract Bill Clinton by Chuck Close


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