America’s capital thrives at more than just political drama. The nation’s remarkable history and art come alive in Washington’s countless museums, which are among some of the most popular cultural institutions in the world.

Standing in the middle of the National Mall at the base of the Washington Monument, I feel surrounded by possibilities.

At one end, the unrepentant autumn sun glints off the reflecting pool, creating a glittering ribbon that unwinds to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Facing it, close to 3km away there’s the Capitol Building, its iconic dome wreathed in scaffolding as it gets its first complete restoration in more than half a century.

In almost every other direction, there are museums. Over two dozen are located on the mall or within just a couple of blocks, and many don’t cost anything to visit.

Tightening the straps on my daypack, I tack southeast to the modern-minded Hirshhorn Museum for an exhibit of American artist Dan Flavin, who worked in a surprisingly industrialised medium: fluorescent lights.

His Untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with Respect and Affection) from 1974 is an overlapping series of bisected frames outlined with the glowing tubes. Arrayed down the centre of a blue-lit room, it’s a surrealist’s line of dominos.

Elsewhere in the circular building is Ernesto Neto’s 2002 creation The Dangerous Logic of Wooing, consisting of several bulbous white constructions made of Lycra, Styrofoam and rice, which hang from the ceiling like melting marshmallow clouds.

A block over, the National Air & Space Museum is a must-see, guaranteed to awaken wonder in visitors of any age. I see a sleek, deadly Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane from World War II, learn more about unmanned aerial warfare in a revealing drone display and marvel at the Wright Brothers’ ground-breaking first plane. In the gift shop, I can’t resist a tricoloured brick of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. It’s a nice treat for my inner child. So is my next stop.

Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated by all creatures great and small, so I zip across the grassy mall to the National Museum of Natural History.

The Hall of Mammals is a joy to behold. Specimens here span the globe – from bears and bison found in the States to Australian kangaroos and koala and African lions and tigers. In the latter portion of the exhibit, I muse out loud over the cool svelteness of what I think is a cougar. 

“That’s a cheetah,” a bespectacled boy of no more than eight-years-old corrects me. I peer at the identification card. He’s right. I turn back to thank the budding naturalist, but he has vanished back into the crowd.

My last destination of the day is the National Gallery of Art to experience Leo Villareal’s Multiverse. It’s an immersive installation in the 60-metre-long underground passageway between the museum’s two buildings.

The silvery tubular tunnel is speckled with more than 41,000 light-emitting diodes programed to go on and off to create the sensation of movement, like the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed. Letting my eyes relax, I let the subterranean lightshow carry me away. For a moment, the possibilities once again feel infinite.   

Words: Nevin Martell

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