A Detour Worth Taking in the Smithsonian System: The National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC

My son and I took a much-needed Guys’ Day out to Washington, DC yesterday. Our primary destination, the ever-transitioning Air and Space Museum, was restricting visitors through its renovations strictly via QR code accessed, pre-timed block passes. A shame, since my own father took me to Air and Space faithfully every year and I did likewise for my own until a few years ago. He’d wanted a return visit, yet we passed on the long wait and ended up hiking through raw November winds from the Capitol Building all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, and back to our parking garage.

With a quick stopover in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum where I got to pay homage to my Egyptian pantheon, we had a literal blast through a cold bluster, undeterred. It was one the finest times I’ve had with my teenaged son in the past few years. I scaled concrete risers and jumped off ledges with him and we talked like normal father and son in such a refreshing way it gave us both respite from his teenage angst. At least for a day, we could engage, frolic and carry on like we used to every weekend when he was younger.

Living a mere hour fifteen away, I’ve been to all of the core Smithsonian Museums (the collective sprawl plotted along Independence Avenue known as The Mall) so many times in my life, and I still never get bored of them. I look forward to each visit like I’m one of the countless domestic and international tourists forging a melting pot of people in our nation’s capital city. Yet it stands to reason, even knowing the nooks and crannies of the vast Smithsonian network of museums and galleries as well as any local, a missed gem can manifest itself.

With the Smithsonian expanding to showcase its continuous growth of cultural exhibits, inclusive of new Native and African American history museums, my son brought something cool to my attention on our way back to the car. The Asian Art Museum right next to the original Smithsonian Institute, lovingly referred to as “The Castle.” It’s been since this near-15-year-old was half his age I’d been able to lure him into an art gallery. For me, an instant sell.

Our stopover began as a curious, seemingly short and quick pit stop to thaw out from our venturing up to the marble feet of Abraham Lincoln where my son and I discussed the meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. We’d covered a lot of ground, including our blitz through most of the Natural History Museum and then the Hirshhorn Gardens before crossing through the flushing fountains of the World War II Memorial and the much more somber Vietnam Memorial. It reminded me of how I do any trip to Manhattan; relentless, on-the-go, pushing onward to see as much in a fell swoop as possible.

We quickly discovered the Asian Art Museum was anything but short and quick. The exterior is deceiving. To enter is to demand more of a commitment than meets the eye. 45,000 objects of art spanning the Asian territories with sacred devotionals to Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam spread throughout. A lot of the artifacts, paintings, crystals, ceramics, silk screening, metalwork and stoneware are stuffed into the Charles Lang Freer and Arthur M. Sackler curated galleries. I was surprised to find a lot of impressionist paintings.

Not everything was accessible, the exhibits were more spaced than the National Gallery of Art’s collection, yet, as you can see by the magnificent diamond-shaped staircase splitting the galleries and the 300-seat Meyer Auditorium, there’s magnificence to be found in this museum not every visitor to DC will discover without a proper length of time given to the Smithsonian alone on the travel itinerary.

I’ll leave you these pictures as a teaser with one amusing anecdote to pass… The Asian Art Museum houses a massive Buddhist shrine with a slew of statues splayed in what can only be described as the holiest of devotionals. Much as I gave love and silent offerings to my Egyptian lords and ladies at Natural History with hands pressed in prayer and deference without care to the public’s gawking at me, so too did a handful of the Buddhist faithful here. Would that I had made my son slow his roll, since there is a Ptolemaic Period image of Horus in this museum I’m kicking myself for missing. This spot of meditation was placed for Hindu and Buddhist flock, right down to piped-in ohm music. My son, no stranger to my and my fiancee’s esoteric spirituality, still told me later he’d been creeped out by the entire experience, adding he was at least glad we went inside the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art. That makes two of us, kid…

All photos except for museum exterior by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

7 thoughts on “A Detour Worth Taking in the Smithsonian System: The National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC

    • Thanks, brother! Ahh, yes, I get it, but do yourself the favor for certain if you get back to DC. I never take for granted having access to the museums whenever I want to for a short trip. I now need to explore more of the newer cultural museums along with hitting my favorite biggies. I feel a sense of comfort in those museums, whether I’m being rushed by companions or the rare opportunity to take my time in them. The Smithsonian museums are a mandatory visit as a collective treasure. Overwhelming in a day trip, but exquisite over a weekend or vacation.

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