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Anne Teahan: Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility - disability arts online
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Anne Teahan's first morning in Washington DC / 10 July 2010

Photo of the flags surrounding the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument. Photo by Anne Teahan

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This is my first Washington morning. I am almost comatose from travel but excited at the prospect of seeing the Smithsonian. This morning I will make my first visit to ‘Revealing Culture’ in their International Gallery with a rare opportunity for immersion in the work of 54 artists, all of them exploring the experience of disability. I will see my own work in this context and the exhibition within the vast 19-gallery Smithsonian complex.

But a series of obstacles are slowing me down. In a small, sunny breakfast room, I am experiencing the Sjogren’s effect – a dry fogginess, like an (unearned) hangover, clogs up my thinking. I wrestle with a bagel and a huge and complex toaster with too many controls and options. The lady on the morning shift is entranced by the Spanish-dubbed cartoons on a huge flat screen TV. She interrupts her pleasure to work the toaster, points out the three carbohydrate options, (bagels, bread or cereal) then returns to the cartoon action.

I hope the sugar and caffeine will break through the mist. I can only concentrate on one task at a time: sorting a metro card, checking my charged-up camera, eye lotions, bottles of water… (I hear it is 95 degrees outside and I fear dehydration).

It takes most of the morning and a few unsuccessful attempts to leave for the Smithsonian. The cartoon lady, determined to get me outside once and for all, lends me what turns out to be an uncloseable umbrella as the humid weather explodes into a thunderstorm and torrential rain. I get so far, the rain subsides, like the toaster the umbrella is too large to be managed, and I return one last time to dump it.

I am determined to experience the Metro and get the feel of the city. The Washington streets are laid out like a geometric drawing: alphabetically from North to South and numerically from east to west. The elegant houses and avenues appear almost empty. Has everyone left to escape the heat?

The Metro is dimly lit, beautifully and starkly constructed – and air conditioned. Adverts are sparse and appear to be restricted to health, education or culture.

But just like London, there are delays – a few stops and one change turn into a long, exhausting and over-crowded journey. Travellers say ‘this is always happening’ - but the squeeze is less tense and impatient than in London.

The Smithsonian has its own Metro and above ground is the National Mall. My map shows I have surfaced toward the Western side of a long green rectangle surrounded by Smithsonian galleries and museums with landmarks at either end: the Washington Monument, a stark stone obelisque surrounded by US flags is close to the west, and the Capitol building - domed and white - sits somewhere at the opposite end. And straight north from the Monument is the White House.

So American art, history, politics and monumental icons of national pride are all connected to this gigantic stretch of grass. And I have a few hot days to sample it, if the Sjogren’s fog allows.

And close by the Metro sits The Ripley Centre – the Smithsonian’s International Gallery. Outside hangs a huge banner headed ‘Revealing Culture’ with images of all 55 exhibiting artists’ work, squared and lined up, including my own fragmented paper teacup.

I need to stop somewhere, rest and deal with the heat before I go in to see the exhibition. I buy a three-dollar hot dog from a kiosk and find a patch of grass and shade. My vision has a dry, dull edge – but eye-drops temporarily restore the full gleam of reality.

I spend an hour watching the grassy space under the heat where something temporary and tented is in the process of being dismantled – half-mast banners suggest the remains of a folk life festival. It looks like home-grown produce has been sold or celebrated and is now gone; and this is a relief from the orderly geometry of the map and the rigid row of flags around the Washington Monument. And the occasional kiosk gives the feeling of Sundays in the park.