Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 16, 2010: Washington - US Capitol

My visit to the US Capitol building was free, although it required reserving a couple of days in advance. I was hoping for something as fantastic as the Library of Congress, where the tour was engaging and the building and the exhibitions of its collections totally surpassed my expectations.

However, the US Capitol was a bit underwhelming. As usual it was hot and sunny outside. There was virtually no one in the plaza leading up to the Capitol, which was a bit surprising - in contrast, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were swarming with people, and it wasn't much cooler the day I was there. Everyone was inside the visitor's center, which is actually underground (and air conditioned!).

The tour started with a long patriotic video about America, starting with the magnificence of being a democracy with freedom for all to hold different ideas yet still united as one country (E pluribus unum), followed by the price of freedom having been paid for by the blood of soldiers. Maybe it just strikes me as over the top since here in Canada we're an independent democracy too but didn't need to fight a war with England to end up that way - it may have taken a little longer but the price wasn't so steep.

For our tour we were all given earphones so that we could hear our tour guide - there were many other tours going on simultaneously, so it would have been easy to get lost in the shuffle. Our first stop was a hall which was formerly used for government purposes but now displays many statues (each state has donated two statues - they were originally all housed in the same hall but the combined weight was too great, so now they are dispersed throughout the building). During remodeling the floor of the hall was raised which changed the acoustics - you can now stand in one part of the hall, whisper, and be heard clearly in another part, as our tour guide demonstrated. Of course he had us take off our headphones so that we could actually hear the whisper projected by the hall's acoustics, rather than by electronics.

The acoustics demonstration was fun. Unfortunately, our guide forget to turn his transmitter back on, so from that point onward we didn't hear as much as we could have. We all gathered under the dome (remarkably high - the Statue of Liberty could stand under it with room to spare), admired the frieze (painted to resemble carved stone - pretty convincing) which depicted scenes from American history (the Wright brothers flying stood out the most for me), and that was it. The tour was over almost before it started.

There was an exhibition hall downstairs which I enjoyed, although we weren't allowed to take photographs (too bad - lots of fun models of the appearance of the Capitol and its surroundings throughout the years). The visitor's center did allow pictures, although it really only had a handful of sculptures - the most interesting being Helen Keller, a very golden king of Hawaii, and a large model of the Statue of Freedom that stands on top of the building.

Photos: the Capitol; interior of the dome; hall of statues with amazing acoustics; chandelier hanging from the dome over the hall of statues; model of the Statue of Freedom in the visitor's center; Kamehamehai, first king of Hawaii; braille and raised relief imagery on Helen Keller's statue base; the Statue of Freedom on top of the dome; view down the Mall; beautiful trees on the grounds of the Capitol

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