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Scott’s Column: Wandering the Mall

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
August 2 2017

Wandering the Mall

On June 28 I was walking up to the National Botanical Gardens and heard loud voices over by the Capitol building.  “Probably some people protesting for something I care about,” I thought.  But I decided that those couple of days were mine, before I headed on to General Synod in Baltimore, so I didn’t walk over to check out the protestors.  On Facebook that evening I learned that it was a UCC protest for health care.  Of course.  My invitation to the event was waiting in my e-mail inbox when I returned from Synod.  Oh well.

I decided to spend two days in DC ahead of Synod in order to see some friends who live there, but I also took advantage of the occasion to walk along the Mall and visit museums.  I’ve only been in D. C. three other times–a tourist trip with the family of my best friend in 1990, with the United States Senate Youth Program in 1992, and a few hours in 2011 with my friend Rob Howard when we saw many of the new monuments and memorials on the Mall after a trip in the region visiting battlefields.  So, this was my first leisurely time in the nation’s capital in a quarter century, and it is a very changed city.

Back then Pennsylvania Avenue was a busy street. You could actually walk through the parks around the White House.  You got a White House tour by standing in line to get tickets. Anyone could wander into the Capitol and watch the proceedings.  Public buildings didn’t look like secure fortresses.  All this new security was upsetting.

In the National Museum of American History I enjoyed seeing artifacts of American life, though overhearing conversations was dispiriting.  There was the woman who, looking at the chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker said, “I don’t know who they are.”  Or the child with her family who said “A wedding cake topper” which happened to be of two men.  A parent said, “Don’t look at that.”  Ugh.

When I walked through the National Art Gallery in 1992, it was my first visit to a serious art museum.  I was a Philistine. I thought of my 17 year old self and giggled. This visit I lingered in front of their cast of Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, the greatest American sculpture.  I admired a Helen Frankenthaler painting I’ve used in my my Ethics class (as part of an exercise illustrating an Iris Murdoch essay on The Good) and thrilled to encounter Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle).  I’ve owned a print of that painting since 1996 and it currently hangs in Sebastian’s room.  I’d never seen the original.  It is marvelous.

I noticed a community garden across the street from the Air & Space Museum and enjoyed the juxtaposition.

On the second day I decided to walk all the way around the Tidal Basin, which I’d never done.  This after already having walked many miles.  I ended up blistering my feet in DC, and they didn’t fully recover for a few weeks.

I had read that the Jefferson Memorial was in bad shape, but I was still surprised.  Throughout my visit I was struck by the number of turned off fountains, crumbling plazas, algae filled pools, and obnoxious security fences. Someone is failing in their obligations.

The African American History Museum sure makes a statement as it boldly sits next to the monuments to slave owners.  I was unable to get tickets.

Standing at the World War II Memorial and thinking of my grandfather earning his Purple Heart at the Battle of Anzio (the battle is commemorated in the stone), I realized that the day had made me sad.  When I set out that morning I hoped that encountering the ideals of our republic would be ennobling and reassuring, but realizing how we have failed to live up to our ideals saddened me.