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What to learn at the Smithsonian

There are a bunch of massive, amazing, free museums in Washington DC called the "Smithsonian." There's one for American History, Art, Air & Space, Native American History, Natural History, African Art, and so on.


But just because these museums exist, and are almost always open, doesn't mean I go often. They're plenty big, so it's not like I've seen all the exhibitions already. Nope, I just can't always motivate myself to do something educational in the weekend.


But whenever I go, I enjoy it. I love history, so over Christmas I felt it was time to re(visit) the American History museum. Because I'd already been there before, I decided to make a special effort to learn something new.


Instead of marveling, again, at how handsome JFK was, or being sad about MLK's murder, and wondering what the country would have looked like if these guys hadn't been shot, I paid attention to the kinds of details I typically overlook when I wonder around a museum, and not think about lunch (the best lunch is in the Native American museum, everyone in DC knows).


In total, I learned eight new things (my goal was 10):


1. Bar shots

Nope, not bar shots. These things are cannon balls. I always thought cannon balls were simple round contraptions, but as it turns out, during the Revolutionary War--and I'm sure in many others--soldiers connected metal balls to each other with a bar (or chain) to increase their impact. When they flung out of a cannon, they could tear up an entire sail of a sail boat.


2. Tampons

"Tampions" were used to plug cannon muzzles not in use, mainly to keep out dust. This immediately made me wonder if that's where the word "tampon" comes from. Looking at these tampions with this in mind is, well, interesting. When I looked it up online, it turned out I was... right! As Wikipedia tells us: tampon originates from the medieval French word "tampion," meaning a piece of cloth to stop a hole, a stamp, plug, or stopper.


3. The Batmobile is Real

Downstairs, we accidentally ran into the Batmobile; the one produced for the 1989 Batman movie. My 6-yo son's reaction: "Mom, I think I'm dreaming." As it turns out, besides looking pretty cool it's the only turbine powered Batmobile in existence, and it's powered by a military Boeing turboshaft engine driving the rear wheels through a 4 speed semi-automatic transmission. And it's street registered.


4. Van Buren was Dutch

Martin van Buren was the 8th U.S. President from 1837 to 1841; the first to be born in the independent USA and the first non-British descent President. His family was Dutch and so was his first language. He's the only president ever to have English as a second language.


5. Benedict Arnold

"He's a Benedict Arnold" is something I often hear in American pop culture--most recently I heard it during Grace & Frankie, as well as in an episode of Captain Underpants. His name is synonymous with traitor, but why? Well, this Revolutionary War general was frustrated with not getting promoted and making a lot of money, so he switched to the British side in 1979 and ended up living in the UK.


6. Lithograph = mass art production

The word "lithograph" almost puts me to sleep. But what the heck is a lithograph? Well, it's a type of printing invented in the 18th century by a Germany guy who realized he could use a new copying method to reproduce his artwork, using a flat stone and some greasy pencils, in almost unlimited quantities.


7. Where states are

My geography of the U.S. isn't great. I've only been to 10 states so far (Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Florida, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington). So I spent some time staring at a map from General Benedict Arnold's 1776 Battle of Valcour Island against a British Navy fleet on Lake Champlain. Apparently, if you drive straight north from New York City for about 6 hours, you pass Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire (to the right), Vermont (to the left), and end up in Montreal, Canada?


8. Clara Barton

Clara Barton was "the angel of the battlefield" and the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881. And the first "ambulance" the Red Cross bought was a simple wooden carriage. We're lucky we live in 2020.


Happy new year everyone!


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