Spring Break 2022 – National Zoo

We wanted an outdoor venue for our meetup with friends and elected to visit the National Zoo as that would suit the wide span of ages. We had last visited the National Zoo as part of a road trip all the way back in 2016 – which feels somewhat like a bygone era now. This was also our first experience with a very crowded tourist attraction during the pandemic. I don’t like crowds even at the best of times and areas of the zoo were definitely too densely populated for my liking but otherwise visitors were dispersed throughout the zoo in a way that was manageable.

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We had much more success with viewing animals during our previous visit to this zoo. As one of the first properly hot days of the year, perhaps it was too much to ask the animals to be out of their shaded shelters and be out on show for us, but it was a bit disappointing to be seeing so many empty enclosures. The sloth bear offered a fair compromise as he was relaxing in a hammock.

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Although we only saw them at a distance, the pandas put on an entertaining show. One of the juveniles was being a complete derp. As it tried to clamber over some branches to reach a platform, its coordination kept failing and it would wobble off the branches. It almost fell several times – to great gasps from the human onlookers – and even managed to fall off the platform once it had reached it. We can add lack of gymnastic aptitude and no sense of balance to the reasons why pandas are so endangered.

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Our 15 year old is obsessed with the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (it’s his third favourite after the 1977 Soviet movie ‘The Ascent’ and the 1997 Iranian movie ‘Taste of Cherry’). He had a mission to find as many of the animals who make up the animated cast of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ as he possibly could. He especially wanted to see the red panda (Master Shifu) and we had almost given up when it appeared in the window of its indoor enclosure. That quick glimpse was all he got but the mission was accomplished. I am sure he will attempt this challenge in the future during visits to other zoos.

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Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

Spring Break Day 4 – Air and Space Museum

After a leisurely start to the day, we set off on an expedition to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Chantilly – an extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum housed in two old aircraft hangars.  The incredible space afforded by the nature of the buildings means that it can house some of the most significant aeroplanes in American history – in world history in some instances.

The kids were handed Scavenger Hunt sheets that instructed them to find about eight aeroplanes across the collection which all had a name or nickname associated with an animal.  That was a good means of pulling them through the space to see various highlights.  Our oldest son accompanied his grandparents to undertake a more thorough tour with a bit more science and engineering focus while Mr Pict and I took the other three children around.  Our 8 year old can be very difficult to engage in even arts and humanities subjects at times but trying to engage him in science and technology was pretty much mission impossible.  I think there were two things in the entire Museum that he showed a particular interest in.  I am intrigued to discover, in the weeks and months to come, how much information he actually managed to absorb from osmosis or subliminal learning.

The boys liked the Blackbird because it features in the movie ‘X Men: First Class’.  In the film, one of the mutants designs it and it can transport the whole team.  It was interesting for them to note, therefore, how miniscule the cockpit actually was, especially in proportion to the scale of the rest of the plane.  They also enjoyed seeing various aircraft from Nazi Germany which they knew from the Indiana Jones movies.

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The space section was probably the most successful in terms of holding the kids’ attention.  I am not massively interested in space travel and exploration but even I was excited to see the space shuttle Discovery up close and my husband – who is very much into astronomy and outer space – was absolutely thrilled.  I have been to Cape Canaveral before so the scale was something I was familiar with but for some reason I felt I could see the detail more on this shuttle – or maybe I was just a bit more interested this time.  I noted the smoothness of the design and even of the component parts.  The same area also housed various space modules and re-entry pods and glass cases full of astronaut artefacts including some vomit-inducing foods inside squeezy tubes and some underpants for collecting urine.  Somewhat incongruously but excitingly for me, there was also a model of the mother ship from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ on which the model makers had hidden various real world items such as a submarine, sharks, a VW minibus, a graveyard and R2D2 – which our 8 year old found right away.

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I had seen part of the Enola Gay in the regular Air and Space Museum back in 1995 but it really was quite something to see the entire thing reassembled.  I had not appreciated how large it was before seeing it in its entirety.  It’s impact, of course, is not so much what it is in itself but the role it played in the Second World War and consequently in the history of the modern world and in the history of ethics.  Apparently our 11 year old took part in quite an in-depth discussion with his grandparents about the efficacy and ethics of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

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We saw aircraft on every scale – from tiny little things even I, at my height, could be hard pressed to fit into to Concorde – and of every colour – from plain varnished wood to dazzlingly shiny chrome –  and from every era – from pioneering aircraft to modern engineering.  We also saw items linked to specific pilots, such as Amelia Earhart’s jumpsuit and a whole series of glass cases filled with souvenir trinkets and toys celebrating Charles Lindbergh.

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