Stranded In The Southland

Monday, January 03, 2005

Fun Museums in DC

While away for the holidays, I managed to visit a couple vastly different, but mutually fabulous, museums. The new Smithsonian Air and Space annex at Dulles Airport, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, has many of the planes from the museum's collection that won't fit into the museum on the mall. It's brand new, beautiful, and very popular. The Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard has lots of classic ship models, amazing artifacts, and very detailed exhibits. It is almost impossible to get into (you need to give your social security number and picture ID just to get into the Naval Yard), and hence nearly deserted.

I was in the DC area visiting family for the holidays. My father grew up during WWII and spent some time in Navy flight training, so he's fascinated by flying, and especially Naval Aviation. And I'm nothing if not my father's son. So, we all trucked off the the Udvar-Hazy Center to check out the planes.

As with the Getty, which I recently visited, the museum has no entrance charges, but manages to soak you for $12 a car for parking. It's probably not a bad deal, as I'm sure it would take forever to get out there on public transportation. Besides, this is an amazing museum.

It's built in a gigantic hanger, but unlike the hangers at Wright-Patterson in Ohio, this hanger is obviously built for showing off planes. The architecture looks great. There's a high tower which apparently has air traffic control exhibits (I didn't get a chance to get up there), and beautifully light and airy entranceway. The inside of the hanger itself is all white, and even the supports and HVAC manages to look well designed and sort of elegant. Pwhew!

And the planes -- it is hard to imagine that these are the second string planes from the Smithsonian. There's the Enola Gay which dropped the first nuclear bomb, and space shuttle Enterprise (the one they did the drop testing on, it never made it into space). They have a P-47 Thunderbolt, a Fw-190, a P-38, and a P-40. They have some seriously obscure stuff, like an Arado-234. They even have a beautiful Corsair hanging up, facing the entrance, so it is the first thing you see on the way in. Wow!

This is an awesome museum, and it is only going to get better. There is still lots and lots of room for more aircraft, and the display labels are still kind of rudimentary. I had a great time, and obviously I wasn't alone -- the place was packed. I'm amazed that so many folks were willing to make the trek out there, but it was chock full. It was such a big place, though, that it could handle the crowd.

[Oh, yeah, if you go out to see it, take your own lunch. I wound up waiting in line for 30 minutes to get a really bad Subway box lunch.]

The next day, we headed out to the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard. My grandfather worked there as a machinist for several decades. Apparently, Grandpa was never very clear on what he did, as he had to have a security clearance for the work, but he apparently was making optical gunsights. I'm not sure why that was classified, but I come by my close-mouthness naturally, I guess. :-)

Anyway, we had to call up 24 hours in advance to get access to the museum, and then we had to give our social security numbers and show picture IDs just to get onto the Navy Yard. Everybody was very polite, so we got on with a minimum of difficulty.

It was totally worth it -- the museum was amazing, and totally deserted. This was a welcome change after the crowds of the day before. The museum was full of amazing, huge 1/48th scale ship models (carriers and battleships were 20 feet long, at least), plus lots of informative displays.

They cover the history of the US Navy from the Revolutionary War through Korea (it looks like there is room for more expansion) with an especially wonderful WWII section. They have the requisite Corsair (this was a Corsair Christmas, as I got my dad a nice 1/18th scale model Corsair, plus a WWII flight simulator with Corsairs), plus lots of exhibits on obscure details of the war. For instance, they had a radar unit from a TBF which seems incredably rare, and a cool model of one of the five portable floating dry-docks used in the Pacific. Yow.

Then they have an outside display of ordinance, including a huge railroad gun from WWI, plus a 14" barrel from the interwar period. They also have what looks like a swift boat and a beautifully maintained Destroyer Escort. All in all, it is totally worth the visit, especially if you are as allergic to crowds as I am.