Tuesday 17 February 2015

A Nineteenth Centuryist in Washington D.C.

Rather appropriately for the President’s Day weekend, the Secret Victorianist spent the last few days in Washington D.C. It was my first visit to the US capital, and partially inspired by my recent review of Henry Adam’s Democracy, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the social and political milieu of the city in the 1800s. It was a culturally diverse weekend (from Renaissance art to 50 Shades of Grey, with lots in between), but I wanted to share some nineteenth-century highlights among the attractions I visited.

First up was the National Museum of American History, where three very different exhibitions which dealt with the period stood out. There was the original star-spangled banner – the huge flag which flew above Fort McHenry to mark its victory over the British in September 1814 and which inspired the poem by Francis Scott Key which would become the country’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The flag
What I found interesting here, aside from the impressively huge flag itself, was the story this told about the afterlife of objects and texts. Just as the flag has gone through changes – been invested with a meaning beyond its initial use, cut up to provide keepsakes, displayed in private homes and in public spaces, so too has Key’s poem been adapted and repurposed. Listening to older recordings of the anthem being sung and comparing to the conventions of anthem-singing today, for example, posed questions about cultural continuity and evolution. The exhibition isn’t just an important piece of US history – it’s a testament to the ongoing and ever-developing nature of history and an argument in itself for the value of reception studies.

Alexander Graham Bell
Meanwhile Hear my Voice was a (much emptier!) special exhibition featuring recordings and equipment from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington D.C. in the 1880s. Indistinct and crackling as the recordings are, hearing voices from the nineteenth century, testing equipment and reciting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, is a real thrill, and one which draws attention to the impressive nature of the kind of technologies we now take for granted.

'The Mutiny on the Amistad', Hale Woodruff
If learning about the star-spangled banner led to reflections on American patriotism today, a way of looking back at the nineteenth century through a different lens, was the Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College exhibition. This series of six murals by Woodruff, painted in the 1930s, was commissioned by the Alabama college and portrays significant events in African American history, including the foundation of Talladega College in 1867 and the slave uprising on the Amistad in 1839.

Seeing a nineteenth-century slave ship and courtroom rendered in Woodruff’s colourful, geometric murals is vivid and compelling, and with recent interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives with black heroes and heroines at their centre (think Twelve Years a Slave and Belle), it seems like a timely moment for these wonderful murals to be touring the country, post-restoration.

Tudor Place
Away from the history museum, I also visited the historic Tudor Place – a family mansion in Georgetown, which was home to Thomas Peter, and his wife Martha (granddaughter of Martha Washington), and four generations of their descendants (until 1983). The beautiful house, which dates from 1814, holds many objects from Mount Vernon, and visiting gives you an insight into the life of one family throughout the entire nineteenth, and most of the twentieth, centuries, against a backdrop of large scale political and social change and upheaval. The family watched the White House burn from their windows in 1814, hosted Union soldiers, despite their Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and, throughout all, lovingly preserved the character of the house.

On what was one of the coldest days of the year in D.C., I was lucky enough to have the first tour of the day entirely to myself, but would love to visit again in the summer to wander around the tranquil and extensive gardens. If you’re fed up with the throngs at the city’s headline tourist attractions, this is a gem.

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
A final mention goes to the current display of works from the Corcoran Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, as the latter incorporates 6,000 works from the former into its collection. There’s so much here, but I particularly enjoyed Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857). Catch it with its fellow pieces from the Corcoran while you can.

Do you know of any other great nineteenth-century attractions in D.C.? Let me know for next time I visit – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

'Niagara', Frederic Edwin Church (1857)


  1. I love your insight on the afterlife of objects and texts. Very thought-provoking read (and with such amazing pics!). Thanks for sharing.