Washington, D.C., museums: Top 10 of 2012

Just six months into the arts beat, I’m struck by the breadth, depth and vibrancy of offerings from the local arts and culture scene. My (Half-a-Year) Top 10 list highlights the wide-ranging stories that kept me thinking after I finished writing.

Exhibitions

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” which closes Dec. 9 at the National Museum of African Art, feels powerful, old and soaring. There’s something compelling and universal about art dealing with human beings’ first attempts to understand the heavens.

Women Who Rock ,” which runs until Jan. 6 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, had impressive rocker-girl artifacts. But what stayed with me most was the feminist manifesto of women who picked up their instruments and sometimes negotiated, sometimes forced a place for themselves in our broad cultural imagining.

“In Full Glory Reflected: Maryland During the War of 1812,” which runs through January 2015 at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, examines the subtleties and existential questions raised and answered by the often forgotten war sandwiched between the American Revolution and the Civil War. History buffs will find our region’s centrality in the conflict particularly well detailed.

“Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” which opened last month at the American History Museum, traces the changes in food production and processing, and highlights the myriad divergent strands that took root after World War II in the culture around eating. It includes the kitchen of food television’s first star, Julia Child, and the 18-seat table in the middle is the perfect invitation for visitors to sit and swap memories, or perhaps recipes.


The Julia Child kitchen display at the “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” at the American History Museum. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution,” the nine-part National Geographic exhibition that runs through May 2013, tells the enchanting evolutionary story of the New Guinea birds that have developed bizarre extremes of color and behavior as part of a millions-of-years-long process of “perfect sexual selection.” Nearly a decade of vivid, painstakingly detailed photography is displayed along with kid-friendly interactives. Worth it just for the bird with the trippy psychedelic smile.

Performance

“Bring Back the Funk” Concert on the Mall. Surely some sort of weird, Chocolate City, karmic circle has been completed when you hear Smithsonian Institution and make my funk the p-funk in the same sentence. George Clinton, Meshell Ndegeocello and Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk performed on the first day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of the yearlong celebration of the African American History and Culture Museum’s groundbreaking in February. Particularly fun was Ndegeocello’s dedication of a James Brown classic to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Say it loud/I’m black, and I’m proud.”

Opening/reopening

The National Children’s Museum will reopen finally (!) Dec. 14 at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County after closing its Northeast Washington doors eight years ago. Though many who remember the old location have kids who’ve aged out of the demographic, the reopening adds an exciting new choice for parents who’d like more educational options for playdates.

Web site

“Preparing for the Oath: U.S. History and Civics for Citizenship”. This interactive Web site, a joint partnership between the American History Museum and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services, was unveiled in May. It showcases artifacts and recounts history to help immigrants prepare for the 100-question citizenship test in a way so simple, informative and fun, I had my two kids, 14 and 10, go through each capsule and take the test — and sent it to their teachers! It’s a great way to make history accessible.

Changes/trends

Groundbreaking for Textile Museum move/partnership with George Washington University. The October groundbreaking and the scheduled 2014 move of the historic Textile Museum to the GW campus seem like an intuitively smart decision. It allows the museum, which has had a balanced budget for years, to expand and remain financially viable, and gives university students access to the research possibilities of a world-class collection.

Donation

A $10 million gift to the Smithsonian to launch a long-term marine biodiversity and global ecosystems project. Though not the largest Smithsonian gift this year (that $35 million distinction belongs to David Koch and Natural History for a new dinosaur hall), the rare research donation by Michael Tennenbaum, philanthropist and senior managing partner of Los Angeles-based Tennenbaum Capital Partners, and his wife, Suzanne, to standardize and monitor long-term ocean data feels like an injection of spot-on science into the fraught climate-change debate. The compelling project highlights the institution’s worldwide leadership role outside the exhibition halls.

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