Museums

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First you see Washington the surveyor, young, athletic, and confident, in a clearing in the Shenandoah Valley. Next he’s on horseback, surrounded by his troops and falling snow at Valley Forge, in a blue dress coat with gold epaulets and white leather breeches, looking every inch the commander. Finally he’s at Federal Hall in New York, taking the oath of office as President, looking older, more like the George Washington of Gilbert Stuart and the dollar bill, but amazingly alive and real and consistent with his younger versions. You’ll come away from seeing these three Washingtons thinking you’ve gotten to know the man in a way you never before could have. Visiting Mount Vernon has always been an inspiring experience. It has gotten even more so. Frederick E. Allen

New Museum One service’s bid to “live forever”

No branch of our armed services has a more vigorous sense of its past than the Marines, and now they have a particularly effective way to help keep that past vivid. Appropriately situated in Quantico, Virginia, the brand-new (it opened to the public this November 13) National Museum of the Marine Corps houses some 60,000 artifacts, from small arms to very large ones (a Harrier jump jet hangs in the main gallery). Along with the traditional displays are some strenuously modern ones. The visitor can get hectored through boot camp, take a tour of the lines in North Korea, and, in Vietnam, debark from a helicopter onto a contested landing zone complete with heavy humidity.

The museum is the anchor of the still-building Marine Corps Heritage Center, which in time will include a “display armory,” a memorial park, parade grounds, hiking trails, and the inevitable IMAX theater. But there’s plenty here already, including a flag that flew on Mount Suri-bachi, and not the least stirring sight is the quote barked out by Sgt. Daniel Daly, urging his battered outfit forward through Belleau Wood in 1918. Although carved in marmoreal stone, it vibrates with the pugnacious gallantry of the Corps and encapsulates what that gallantry costs: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”— Richard F. Snow

Museum Renovation A Great Institution Gets Greater

Like several other San Francisco icons, the original M. H. de Young Memorial Museum began life as a pavilion in the 1894 California Midwinter International Exhibition, housed in the city’s still-new Golden Gate Park. Michael de Young, then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle , had been a major force behind the exposition, hoping the proceeds would stimulate the city’s depressed economy. He had the right idea: More than 1.3 million visitors attended, generating enough profit to turn the pavilion into a permanent art museum, the city’s first. Over the ensuing decades the de Young evolved from an eclectic assortment of exotic odds and ends into a major storehouse of American, African, and Oceanic art, and as the collection began to outgrow the available space, buildings were torn down and rebuilt, creating an architecturally dysfunctional whole. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused heavy damage to the museum, the time had come to start from scratch. It closed its doors on December 31, 2000; thousands of San Franciscans came to pay tribute.

The decisions to leave the new museum in the park instead of relocating it to a more convenient downtown site and to let the natural surroundings influence its architecture turned out to be both crucial and happy ones. Though many locals weren’t sure they were going to like the new 140-foot coppery tower rising over their beloved park, the results have been a smash success, with both architecture critics and the public. Since its October 2005 opening, more than 1.6 million visitors have walked the slate floors of the new de Young, and there are no signs of the crowds thinning. And this time around the de Young promises to age gracefully. As the copper exterior oxidizes, it will take on the hues of the surrounding park. Those looking for vestiges of the museum’s beginnings will find them in the sphinx statues guarding the front entrance, the “Pool of Enchantment,” and the palm trees that were planted for the original exhibition. Amy Weaver Dorning