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A Bevy of New Exhibits Explore the "Art of Creation" in Washington, DC

German chancellor Otto van Bismarck famously remarked: "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation.” And though visitors to Washington, DC get to watch debates on the floor of the Congress and arguments before the Supreme Court, they rarely, if ever, are allowed to witness the decision-making process that shapes laws. That happens behind closed doors.  

Intriguingly, a number of DC museums have taken up “sausage making” as their theme this spring, exploring the processes behind a number of different disciplines. The results are downright fascinating.

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (www.mnh.si.edu), for example, visitors are invited to watch as paleontologists painstakingly catalogue the remains of a 66.5 million year old T-Rex. In the newly created “Rex Room” scientists wield state-of-the-art computerized tools (when I was there it was a small, hand-held device that flashed light on the bones, mapping their every crevice), turning a computer monitor to the crowds that watch so they can understand what the task at hand is accomplishing. Oddly, the paleontologists do their job in a room fronted by iron gates (a sign on them even reads “Please do not shake the gate”), which gives the area the look of a “human zoo”.  The dino they’re mapping, a 38-foot-long, teenaged T-Rex from Montana, will eventually be the centerpiece of the museum’s new dinosaur room, scheduled to open to the public in 2019.

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At the splendid Newseum (www.newseum.org) the forces that shape the evening broadcasts we watch today are being explored in a surprisingly insightful special exhibit tied to the hit comedy Anchorman 2. (The exhibit will be up until mid-August). Interspersed with hilarious clips from the film are interviews with real anchors and producers about how the concept of having news teams developed; how stories are picked; and the role women now play in these broadcasts. Of course, the entire museum is devoted to unpacking how news is made. Be sure to visit not just the Anchorman exhibit but also the room that showcases Pulitzer Prize winning news photos and tells the stories of the men and women who took them.  In one particularly tragic case, a young photographer covering the famine in Sudan took his own life after being criticized for photographing, rather than helping, a starving young child who was being stalked by a vulture.

The process of making portraits is deconstructed at the National Portrait Gallery (www.npg.si.edu) to stunning effect, in a temporary exhibit (through January 11, 2015) on contemporary portraiture.  A wonderfully diverse show, it features works by Romare Bearden, Alice Neel, Willem de Koonig, Alex Katz and others, all of whom shake up standard notions of identity and story-telling. In one painting, a swirl of abstract bulbous pink and yellow paint (with two eyes and lush mouth) is an unmistakable rendering of Marilyn Monroe by de Koonig; Chuck Close, in a massive picture of “Nancy” portrays human mortality in every explicitly detailed bit of fading flesh on the face of his model. Most interesting are the paired portraits that Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth did of one another, which both glamorize and strip the facades off these two art icons.

Have any of you seen these exhibits or any of the new ones in DC? I'd love to hear your reactions.

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