The Grand Re-Opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Back in July, I wrote about the Museum of American History that planned to reopen in November.

It opened last week (November 21) and has been the talk of the town every since. An estimated 15,000 visitors walked through the doors on Friday alone. President & Mrs Bush attended the opening, and Colin Powell was on hand to read a copy of The Gettysburg Address.

President Bush at the reopening.

Famous historian and author David McCullough was also on hand, and I've included his speech below. It's not very long, and it very eloquently speaks of the importance of the Museum.

David McCullough

"Secretary Clough, Ladies and Gentleman --
No city in America pays homage to our nation’s history as does this our capitol city with its magnificent libraries and archival collections, its Capitol building, White House, its monuments and memorials and great ceremonial avenues, its heroic statues and immortal words writ large in stone. Washington insists that we remember.
It beckons us all to pause and look and learn. And nowhere is the pull stronger than within this incomparable National Museum of American History, now rendered more spectacular than ever. And never has an understanding of our story as a people, of who we are and how we came to be the way we are, and what we stand for, been of such importance as right now.
The thrill, the essential, never ending fascination of all to be found within these walls, whether you’re seeing them for the first or the twenty-ninth time, is that they are all the real thing.
There are no facsimiles here, no reproductions, no approximations. At a time when so much else all around us is synthetic, artificial, a contrivance, here is the treasure house of all historic American treasure houses of the real thing.
For my own part I have worked with the museum’s collections and with a number of the curators over a span of nearly forty years -- first as editor of a series of books called The Smithsonian Library and later as part of the production of the Public Television series Smithsonian World. One curator especially, Robert Vogel, historian of American civil engineering, was an all-important help and inspiration in my research on the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. I am also privileged to serve now on the advisory board of this museum.
It has long seemed to me that all these real things are in their various ways talismans, a talisman being an object with magic power. Their magic power is in the multitude of stories they tell -- our stories -- and the ideas they embody.
A wise teacher once said that history for the student should be “an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas.”
Might it be said then that the glory of this collection is its full spectrum of ideas -- from all that is represented by the portable desk upon which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence to John Deere’s self-scouring steel moldboard plow, “the plow that broke the prairie,” to Maria Mitchell’s telescope to the radio microphone used by Franklin D. Roosevelt for his fireside chats to Mister Rogers’s red cardigan sweater. No teacher ever reached more children than Fred Rogers.
And, of course, there’s Edison’s light bulb, by itself the very symbol of ideas.
For too long now, as should be plain to everyone, we have been doing an inadequate job of teaching the history of our own country to our children and grandchildren. We have been raising several generations of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate. And we can’t blame them for not knowing what they were never taught. It is we, the parents and grandparents, who are mainly at fault. The chief problem with American education is us and we have to do something about it.
We have to take part -- we have to talk about the history of our country with our children, put the books we’ve loved and learned from in their hands. And take them to historic places! Bring them to Washington, bring them here to this museum, and let them see for themselves, and let them see how much it means to us, that maybe most of all.
How can we love our country and take no interest in its story?
The eminent historian Daniel Boorstein, an earlier director of this museum, once said, “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” It won’t work. And far too much is at stake.
Among the lesser known and most engaging displays amidst so much to be seen here is a collection of mouse traps, delightful samples of American creativity and inventiveness.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously said, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse trap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
Ladies and gentlemen, a far better museum has been made here, not in the woods but on the incomparable Mall of our Capitol, and may the world beat a path to its door. And as of Friday, November 21, 2008, the door is open!"

Landmark of the Month (November): The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum

Fall is an absolutely beautiful time to be here in DC. I’m not sure if it’s something special about this year (or maybe we haven’t been around trees like this in a long time), but the fall colors seem undeniably brighter and more vibrant this year. To celebrate, we took a trip out the National Arboretum.

The National Arboretum is a 433 acre site owned and operated by the Department of Agriculture. To answer the first question, an arboretum is a living museum where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes. It was established in 1927 by an Act of Congress to serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment (Quick random fact; it was originally established around 1900 as the “Economic Botany Herbarium” and changed the name when officially recognized by Congress.)

I’d like to spend more time exploring here, but we really came for one purpose: to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Unlike some of the vast and grand monuments and memorials in DC, this museum is a small, contemplative space that draws you in and forces you to slow down.

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum began when Japanese bonsai enthusiasts donated 53 bonsai to the people of the United States to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The collection has grown steadily with the addition of pieces from American Bonsai masters and Penjing from China. Today, three pavilions house about 150 plants.

What the difference between Bonsai and Penjing?

Penjing is the ancient art of growing trees and plants, kept small by skilled pruning and formed to create an aesthetic shape and the complex illusion of age. Penjing originated in China over two thousand years ago and was brought to Japan by imperial embassies to Tang China (the 7th – 9th century). When the art form was introduced to Japan, it was called Bonsai.

Even though the pieces are small, they still follow the growing cycle. Like their larger counterparts, most of the deciduous trees are undergoing color change.

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styracificua)

Nepal Firethorn (Pyracantha crenulata)

I want to highlight several fascinating pieces:

This piece is called Goshin, and it’s a spectacular forest-style planting of eleven Foemina Junipers (Juniperus chinensis). It was created by John Naka way back in 1948 and the eleven trees represent his eleven grandchildren. (John Naka was a second-generation Japanese-American who is really thought of as the “father” of bonsai in America.)


I thought Goshin was old, until I saw this Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) that had been in training since 1896!

I thought the Gingko was old until I saw this Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum), which had been in training since 1856.

You get the point…but the one that really took the cake was this Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora) that had been in training since 1625!. That’s not a typo…roughly 5 years after the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, some unknown and now forgotten bonsai master started training this tree. Now, 378 years later, it sits on a bench in NE DC….I find that truly amazing.

What is it that is so appealing about bonsai? I think it has something to do with the deliberate control, the total dedication and commitment. The idea that someone has been training that tree since the 1600’s is hard to believe—especially here in America where we think something from 1950 is dated. I resonate with the discipline it takes to create such works of art. The infamous Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is...that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living." We often simplify this obedience with words like, faithfulness, and perseverance and determination and discipline.

Stones near the entrance path.

It truly is a fascinating place, and I highly recommend it. If I was a coffee drinker, and if I was a person who wrote in a journal, then I’d go there to drink coffee and journal about all my inner feelings. It's almost enough to make me start drinking coffee...

I’ll leave you with a quote from John Naka, “..The dove of peace flies to palace as to humble house, to young and old, to rich and poor. So does the spirit of bonsai.”