Tag: museums

Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

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Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.
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My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!
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The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!
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I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)
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Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.
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Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.
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Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.
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An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.
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Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!
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One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 
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Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.
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A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?

Miscellaneous Monday: Summer Weekends

Are you, dear reader, a worshiper of the weekend?  On Monday mornings do those two precious days glimmer like a mirage on the far horizon; a heavenly vision that gets you through those nasty mid-week blues?  I must admit that I’m more tolerant of weekdays and less reverent about weekends since I’ve left the 9 to 5 routine but — they do remain special.  Weekends are little breaks from the mundanity of everyday routine, with even the most ordinary non-special-occasion weekend offering its own little serendipities.  The greatest, of course, is the weekend read.  An entire afternoon, with no chores or commitments, and nothing, absolutely nothing, between you and the book of your choice.  A treat of this caliber is rare, even on weekends, but there are lesser delights to savor.  On weekends, the morning’s hasty bagel breakfast can expand to include a friendly  interchange with the bagel chomper at the next table, or the harried trip to the grocery store can become leisurely enough to notice (finally) that nice patch of flowers along your route.  Or — hang on to your hat, Magellan! — you might feel relaxed and adventurous enough to explore a different route to a familiar destination; or even to try a different activity — a new store, an unfamiliar park or museum or that obscure cafe you’ve being hearing about.  Even the domestic routine mellows out — weekends are for trying new recipes, or looking at forgotten photos, or giving the cat an extra tummy tickle along with his/her’s Little Friskies Gravy Lovers’ Treat (a huge favorite in my household).  In short, weekends are for doing all those little things that are actually very big things.

Although weekends are pretty super any time of the year, summer weekends are really unbeatable.  One huge factor contributing to their charm — farmers’ markets!  Do any of you live near farmers’ markets and, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?  In my area, they’ve gone from being rather rare to being ubiquitous.  Although you may find, depending on location, a pop-up market on Friday, or even Thursday, Saturday morning markets tend to be the most popular.  Many of the markets also include much more than the usual fruits and veggies (although I tend to stick to the produce).  The Saturday morning farmer’s market is one of summer’s delights, combining exercise (well, sort of — you do have to walk past the stands), entertainment (if nothing else, there’s always people watching, or a clever dog chasing a frisbee) and really great food:

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Very early morning at the local farmers’ market.  Not all the vendors have set up their stands and the street entertainers haven’t yet made their appearance. In an hour or two, this place will be mobbed ……
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A few of the local offerings.   At this particular farmer’s market, items must be locally grown and preferably organic. As you can see, basil, greens and baby tomatoes are in season.  They will be followed later in the summer by local strawberries, cherries, peaches & corn.
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It’s no mystery why this particular bakery does quite a lively business at the Saturday market!
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If you’re ambitious, and unlike myself non-fatal to plants, you can even find things for your very own garden.
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At last, an entertainer shows up!
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A souvenir from the farmers’ market, to enjoy all week after the eatable goodies are gone.  Although I didn’t get photos of the stands, several of the vendors at my local market specialize in flowers, less expensive and far nicer than the greenhouse variety…

When you’ve had enough of the farmers’ market, or if you decide to skip it that week, not to worry!  Summer weekends have still more delightful possibilities for the dedicated hedonist!  Although my ideal physical exercise is ordinarily confined to turning a page, in the summer I actually like to walk.  One of my very favorite places for a summer’s stroll (quite accessible from where I live,  but, unfortunately, not terribly close) is Little Bennett, a gorgeous multi-use state park containing numerous paths and trails, natural wonders in the form of native plants and critters and some interesting historical sites.  Although Little Bennett is under increasing pressure from a growing population (it’s only a couple of miles from a recently developed “town center” that added approximately 20,000 people to this part of the state), it remains an incredible oasis of natural beauty.  Because Little Bennett is a large place (3700 acres or about 1497 hectares), quiet and solitude can be found there even on crowded weekends.  It has a variety of trails, suited to almost every energy level:

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Little Bennett is hilly; this particular trail has lots of dips and ascents.
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For a more sedate walk, you can use the remnants of an old road that once connected several of the farms whose acreage is now included in the park. This portion is relatively intact; the road disappears entirely further along.
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One of my favorite things about the park is its large and meandering stream, which provides habitat for fish and birds, including …….
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Louisiana Waterthrushes, a species of North American warbler.  These birds are regular summer residents of Little Bennett.
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An area I call “the Bluebird meadow” (I have NO idea of its official name, if any). If you squint really hard at the center of the photo (behind the tree shadow extending from the left) you can see two Bluebird nesting boxes (small square shapes on a pole).  This portion of the park is — surprise! — a pretty good spot to see ….
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Eastern Bluebirds.  Bluebirds eat bugs, love meadows and need cavities for their nests. Without nesting boxes, they would probably be totally displaced by non-native European starlings, which are more aggressive and are also cavity nesters.
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Wims Meadow, once part of a farm owned in the 1930s by Jim Wims, a prosperous African-American farmer. Mr. Wims donated the meadow as a baseball field for African-Americans, who had nowhere else to play in those segregated times.  The Wims teams became known for their excellence and a couple of the players went on to become professionals.

A third summer delight for those less outdoorsy moments is taking a bit more time to savor the cultural offerings that come with the season.  This year I hit the jackpot, as there’s a wonderful June-August exhibition at the National Gallery on:

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The exhibition, the first of its kind, covers 17 centuries and animals real and imaginary. Many of the objects, which include sculpture and ceramics as well as paintings, have rarely if ever left Japan.
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The wall banners are located outside and to the left of the exhibition’s entrance.  As I recall, the banners portray animals associated with the Japanese zodiac.

(in the first exhibition photo, you can see that this digital display is located to the right of the entrance; as you can tell from the sound — you may want to use mute — its animated  animals are quite popular with the kids).

Since summer is my time for exploring, I usually visit the Gallery’s east wing, devoted to modern art, more often than I do at other times of the year.  The east wing has recently reopened after a five-years renovation.  Its totally gorgeous galleries are expansive, roomy and filled with light.

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Although this photo shows only a portion of the East Building’s atrium, it does give you an idea of its size. If you like Alexander Calder’s mobiles, it doesn’t get any better than this!
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A gallery devoted to Calder’s smaller works.  My favorite is the glitter fish in the upper right.
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See what I mean about the gorgeous display spaces? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten the names of the artists whose works you see here — help anyone?
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I love Giorgio Morandi’s paintings .  My significant other finds his work dull; I find it deeply spiritual and contemplative. When I’m in the East Building, I NEVER skip these paintings!
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One of the very nicest features of the renovated East Building was the addition of a roof top terrace, an ideal “break” spot for the summer time art lover! Pay close attention to that hint of blue underneath the left-most tree …….
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. . . which is the bottom half of this huge plastic sculpture by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.   Just LOOK at its size (use the door to the left and the tree in the preceding photo for scale). Are you surprised to learn this is a popular spot for selfies?

Although this post is growing dangerously long, in the spirit of Miscellaneous Monday I’m throwing in some miscellaneous video, also from the National Gallery (as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m learning how to use video on my website!)  One of my favorite parts of the museum is its “people mover,” part of an underground concourse that connects the older West Building to the Gallery’s newer East Wing.  The lights you see in the video are part of the  Multiverse light sculpture created by the American artist Leo Villarreal:

Immediately preceeding the people-mover/light sculpture is the National Gallery’s “waterfall,” which is visible from the underground cafeteria and bookstore and provides a source of natural light to these spaces:

Finally, if all this activity is just too energy consuming, nothing is better on a summer weekend than just plain taking it easy in a favorite spot:

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Farmers’ markets, hiking and museum exhibitions are all very well and good, but Percy knows the best way to pass a summer weekend . . . . on a nice cushion underneath an air conditioning vent!

 

Monday Miscellany: Museum Musings (plus photos!)

Despite my inability to concentrate on any one object for more than ten minutes, or to spend more than a couple of hours, max, on an art stroll, I adore museums.  Perhaps it’s because of their variety:  there’s a museum for everyone and for every mood and personality type.  Interested in the history of fire alarms?  The next time you’re on the Baltimore Beltway, take a detour to The Fire Museum of Maryland, which has one of the world’s greatest displays of working fire alarms.  Want to see some interesting stuff without getting out of your car?  Well, the Museum of Wonder in Seale Alabama (which claims to be the world’s only drive-through museum) is where you need to be!

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The Museum of Wonder (drive-through) in Seale, Alabama. Note the sports trophies glued onto the 1992 Cadilac.
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Butch Anthony, founder of the drive-through Museum of Wonder. As Butch puts it, “I let people self-serve.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you an aficionado of the circus?  Then go immediately to Sarasota, Florida!  It was formerly the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (many circus performers settled there, not to mention John and Mabel Ringling themselves) and has a really great circus museum, founded in the late 1940s.

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Ringling Brothers Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida
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Ringling Brothers Circus Museum, Sarasota Florida (interior)

 

And, of course, there are the big boys of the U.S. museum world — the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name only a few — those places you go when you’re in need of a serious dose of heavy culture, or a nice cafe to relax in on a hot day in the city or a browse in a great store full of art books and prints.  My favorite of these — the place where I head when I’m not in the mood for one of our quirkier little cultural hors d’oeuvres — is Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.  It’s a fabulous museum to visit especially when, as now, there’s a major exhibition or two going on.

A reasonably good street view of the West (old) building of the National Gallery of Art.  Notice the dome, over the columns?  Just scroll down, to see it from the inside!
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A street view of the NGA’s East Building, designed by I.M. Pei. The two buildings are connected by an underground complex, containing a cafeteria, bookstore and people mover; the triangular glass thingeys you see in the photo provide natural light to the underground museum space.

Although I love the East Building, which houses a wonderful collection of 20th century art, my focus today is on the older part of the Museum.  So — back to the dome!  We all have our little rituals and one of mine is to always stop here for a moment or two to admire and to contemplate.

A partial view of the dome, which was modeled on that of the Pantheon in ancient Rome.
More dome, from a slightly different angle. Those indented square things above the columns producing a honey-comb effect  are called “coffers.”
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Looking straight up, here’s my last dome picture (I promise!).  The opening at the top is an oculus, or “eye.” In ancient times, it would be open to the sky (and rain).  Modern museum folks, however, take a dim view of the elements, so the NGA has sealed its dome with glass.

The NGA usually has some sort of special show or exhibition going on.  The current attraction is a fabulous show on 16th century Venetian art, featuring the paintings of Tintoretto, a contemporary and rival of the great Titian (the two artists, by the way, loathed each other).  Since many of Tintoretto’s paintings are really, really large and seldom travel, this is a great opportunity to see something of his best work without a trip to Italy!

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Anyone out there like 16th century Italian art?  If so, the NGA’s current “big” exhibition should be right up your alley!
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The first room of the Tintoretto exhibition.  See the serious looking young guy in the small center portrait?  It’s the artist’s self portrait, done when he was in his 20s.  The last thing you see upon leaving the exhibition is another self-portrait, which he painted shortly before his death over fifty years later.  It’s surprisingly moving & a wonderful touch to a wonderful exhibition.
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One of my favorite Tintoretto’s. I love the fact that the princess is running away like hell, leaving her rescuer and the dragon to battle it out.  Sensible girl!

Besides the special Tintoretto exhibition (around for the next month or so), there’s always something to see or enjoy at the NGA.  If you’re not in the mood for paintings, or food, or books — well, the building itself is worth a visit!

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The photo is deceptive: this is a moving wall of water, visible from the underground cafeteria between the old (West) and new (East) buildings.  It provides natural light and visual interest while one is munching one’s potato chips and slurping one’s diet coke.
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The people mover in the underground passage connecting the West and East Buildings.  The light display, “Multiverse,” was created by the American artist Leo Villarreal.  The constant shifting and changing lights make little kids (and me) cry out in awe and wonder!  I NEVER get tired of this part of the museum!
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A sideways view of the NGA’s sizable main bookstore, also located in the underground concourse.  It’s much larger than it appears in this photo and has a fantastic selection of art books.  If it’s tchotchkes you’re after, there’s another large shop in the West Building dedicated to prints, cards, toys & museum related items.

And when the weary museum visitor needs a physical and mental time-out, he or she can always head for one of the garden courts in the old West Building, which are thoughtfully provided with very comfortable seating around the edges ……

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You can’t see ’em, but the chairs are there (and usually fully occupied!) in the space behind the columns  ….