Renwick Gallery: WONDER Exhibition

Where: 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC
When: Open daily, 10 am-5 pm (admission is free)

In countless books that I own, page upon page features a corner folded down on itself. These corners represent awe. They are the marker of a sentence, passage, paragraph that is so well written my mind is momentarily silenced. A folded down corner indicates that while I was reading, some use of language was so beautiful, so truthful, so full of imagery or import that I felt compelled to honor it in some way. I very likely read it over again several times, pulling whatever message it contained into myself where it could nestle among the other beautiful things I have seen, heard, smelled, touched in my lifetime. And then I folded down the corner so that in years to come, I could return to it again in moments when I need to come in contact with beauty.

This feeling of admiring awe is deeply imbued throughout the entire WONDER exhibition currently on display at the Renwick Gallery. I would fold down every single corner of every page if WONDER were a book. I would buy copies for all my friends and distribute them lavishly and freely. Although it was on my to-do list, I never got around to visiting the installation-du-jour from this past summer, Beach at the National Building Museum. It looked cute and fun, but ultimately I wasn’t overly upset to have missed it. WONDER hasn’t received nearly the same amount of coverage as Beach but oh my gosh. If you don’t see it (YOU MUST SEE IT) you will have lost out. It is special. It filled me with envy. Oh to imagine the world the way these artists did. To be crowned with the ability to envision these things and the ability to create them out of thin air. To be able to make people lie on the floor of a public building because they yearn to fully experience what you intended them to experience.

We went through the exhibit twice, unwilling to let it go. I will probably go back at least one more time before the exhibition begins closing in May 2016. Please go. Take yourself. Take your children. Take anyone you know. You can invite me, I’ll come.

Open again after two years of renovations, the stately and regal Renwick Gallery is the perfect home for the WONDER exhibition. There are nine displays, and each display gets its own room- both for size considerations (the displays are huge) and so that each exhibit stands alone, separate and apart from the other exhibits, which allows visitors to fully absorb them and take them in without distraction.


What I found so stunning about the WONDER exhibition was how each exhibit was unique and unlike any other exhibit in the gallery, and yet somehow the whole collection just fits together. No one installation looks like any other; each room is completely different, each creation has its own mood and feel, but the sum total is as if the whole thing is of a piece. I’m no good at art or maybe I could explain it better. I wish I could.



Nature appears to be the common thread that ties each room together- whether the pieces represent something in nature (as with the white mountains above, made with stacked index cards) or are literally built from nature, as with the display above, which was made using saplings. Represented are light, volume, waves, trees, bugs- and in the middle of it all, humans, fully interacting with each exhibit. “Hey,” you realize. “Hey. I’m part of this system, too.” I can’t recall another exhibition that I’ve seen that makes you feel as though you’re a vital component in the whole setup the way WONDER does. You are not merely at the exhibition. You are a part of it.

More than any other art installation or exhibition I can remember, WONDER inspires awe and conversation. Here is no quiet contemplation or rumination. All around me was discussion of what each piece meant, which piece was preferred. Upon entering one room I heard a woman say to her companion, “This entrance is much more impressive than coming in from the other side.” Everyone meandered and poked, trying to find the most interesting viewpoint, a new way of looking at each sculpture. My children and I discussed which were our favorites and why. I have pretty much never had this much fun in an art gallery is what I’m saying.



In the Grand Salon upstairs was the sculpture that absolutely rocked me- 1.8 by Janet Echelman.


Echelman’s sculpture is a visual representation of the shock waves that that tore across the Pacific Ocean in the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand and South Asia. And here what was violent and brutal and ugly becomes ethereal and beautiful. The lights change color every so often, morphing the experience each time you look. Destruction at the hands of Janet Echelman becomes delicate, gliding through the universe on gossamer.




Looming through a doorway in the Grand Salon is John Grade’s Middle Fork, a cedar replica made from the cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree.


In WONDER, you approach a tree as never before- from the very bottom.


One of the most magical things about the WONDER exhibition is how your sense of your own scale adjusts with each display. In Untitled and Shindig, you feel dwarfed by monoliths; enveloped. In Middle Fork, you feel small next this mighty felled tree. In the next room, which features Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, you suddenly feel transformed into something much larger. The marbled representation of the Chesapeake Bay spilling across the floor and up the walls gives the illusion of viewing the bay from a God-like perspective. You are no longer within or below- you loom above.


When we had made our way through all the exhibits on the top floor, we repeated the circuit once more, popping back into the Grand Salon and finally, despite my initial hesitations (“This is gross, no, we aren’t lying on the floor”), acquiescing to the demands of 1.8… and lying on the floor, to go underwater, so to speak. To become even smaller. To be subsumed.


I can’t speak for everyone else in the Grand Salon, sprawled on the floor with me or otherwise. Perhaps not everyone felt at that moment the deep, throbbing appreciation and yes, envy, that I did. That is the point of art, right? To touch something within you? All I know is that lying on the floor of the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon, immersed in 1.8, I felt that same cognizant stillness that comes when I fold down the corner of a page of a good book. I wish I did this. I wish I could do this. What a gift to be able to do this. I want to remember this. 

I can’t say enough how essential I consider a visit to WONDER Exhibition to be. It is magnificent in its scope, in what it represents, in what it stirs within. I went through twice and in writing this post, have decided a third go-round is necessary. It is a feast for the eyes, a joy for the heart, a puzzle for the brain; it is tactile without ever allowing itself to be touched, and illuminating without ever letting itself be fully known. I’m not going to say it. I won’t do it. Okay, I’m gonna do it.

It’s wondrous.


We showed up at 11 am and the gallery was crowded, but not unbearably so. However, when we left the gallery around noon, the line to get in (which did not exist when we arrived) had wrapped around the building and was halfway down to the White House, a block away. If you’re planning to visit on a weekend or a weekday during Christmas break, be prepared to arrive early, or to wait in a line. 


Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum + Old Town Winchester

Where: 19 W. Cork St., Winchester, VA
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 9 am- 5 pm (closed Mondays). Tickets are $8 for everyone 2 and up.

There’s a magical force surrounding the area we live. My husband and I call it the Northern Virginia Bubble. Northern Virginia is a strange place- while it is historically, geographically, and technically the South, it does not behave like the South. It might be in the South, but it is not of the South. But as we have noticed, going 50 miles in any direction breaks the bubble. If you go 50 miles south or west, you’re in the South. Fifty miles north puts you in the North.

Winchester lies just outside the Northern Virginia Bubble- on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester feels like any other sleepy small Southern town. (A prominent characteristic of breaking through the Northern Virginia Bubble- you’re suddenly back in the land of Waffle Houses and Sonics. And Winchester has BOTH.)

My girls and I escaped the Bubble for a bit to take in the beauty of sweet little Winchester. Our first stop was the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, a hands-on kids museum featuring four floors of displays, activities, and exhibits. We first went  on a rainy day last fall with a newly-mobile baby. This year, with a hell on wheels curious toddler, it was a whole new experience. The great thing about SVDM compared to other kids museums we have been to (Port Discovery in Baltimore, and Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh just this summer), is it’s relatively free of crowds, so the kids have plenty of room to spread out and really explore the play areas rather than getting lost in a crush of children as they do in the bigger museums.

There’s four floors in SVDM. The first floor holds a large triceratops skeleton and a paleontology area to dig for dinosaur bones as well as a refurbished ambulance that kids can “drive.” The back is wide open and various medical apparatus are available for kids to play with and pretend they are paramedics.

If you’re like us, the second floor is where you’ll spend the majority of your time at SVDM. This floor stretches the length of the building and is stuffed with tabletop manipulatives (Legos, wooden blocks, toy food), a water play area that mimics the wetlands of the Potomac Watershed, an area with movable loops and hills that children can combine to make roller coasters down which they can shoot small balls, and an apple sorting area complete with fake trees, apple baskets, a log cabin, and pulleys and conveyor belts to transport the freshly picked apples.

There’s also a man who sits at the desk on this floor who has a delightful way with kids. A collection of large, colorful plastic shapes was on the floor directly in front of his desk; my toddler bent down to play with them but in her excitement, tripped over them when rushing off to a new area. The man at the desk said YOU FELL RIGHT INTO MY TRAP! and I had a good hearty LOL.

The third floor is mostly dedicated to arts and crafts and rooms where birthday parties and summer camps are held, but there is a realistic wigwam built there that models how the Iroquois Indians lived. Also, this is where you’ll find the bathrooms.

My personal favorite part of SVDM is the fourth floor Sky Deck:

The entire roof of SVDM has been carved into an imaginative outdoor play space for kids. There’s small tubs with growing vegetables, a flower garden, paintbrushes and water for “painting” the cement and watching it evaporate, hoola hoops, and a life-sized bowling game.

There’s also incredible views of Downtown Winchester!

Food and drink are not allowed in SVDM, nor is food sold there. BUT! Your paid admission is good all day, which means you can get a stamp on your hand, go find some lunch, and come back for more play later. I urge you to do that because right around the corner from SVDM is the Old Town Winchester pedestrian mall:

Not only is Old Town Winchester adorable, it’s the perfect place to walk with young kids. Busy roads and cars are replaced with wide brick pathways that kids are free to roam safely ahead of you without worry.

There’s even a splash pad!

Knowing this now, I would suggest packing bathing suit and/or a change of clothes and letting the kids play in the splash fountains before getting back in the car. Really get the most bang for your Winchester buck.

My girls and I sat on a shaded patio at Ronca’s and had a pleasant lunch, watching people come and go on the mall. (Three men came and sat down near us after we ordered. They appeared to be local officeworkers out for a lunch break, and they ALL ordered the Monte Cristo, so I’m going to assume the Monte Cristo at Ronca’s is good. Alas, that’s not what I had ordered. (Boring old Italian sub, grumble grumble.)

Right on the mall is the Old Court House Civil War Museum. You know, for the history buffs among us.

Before you leave Winchester you must pop over to Piccadilly St. and catch a glimpse of the magnificent Handley Regional Library, crown jewel of Winchester:

ALERT, ALERT: for those who have been reading, you know I’m fond of pointing out different architectural styles that can be found in the area. We’ve got a new one here- Handley Library is done in the Beaux-Arts style, which was heavily favored in the US from 1880-1920 (Handley Library was opened in 1913). The library was funded by Judge John Handley who left $250,000 in his will for the specific purpose of creating a free library for citizens of Winchester. When it was built, Handley Library cost approximately $233,000 to construct. In today’s dollars, that amount is over $5 million.

Some tips:

-There is a parking lot with metered parking right next to Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, but it can fill quickly due to its proximity to the museum. We parked in the centrally located Braddock Street Autopark, which connects to the pedestrian mall right through the back of the parking garage, and is just a .03 mile walk from the museum itself. It’s also right up the street from Handley Library, so you won’t have to go out of your way to see it. This location could not have been more convenient, or inexpensive- four hours of parking ran me a whopping $2.

-Bring extra clothes and swimsuits for the pedestrian mall splash fountains!

-Stop at Sonic on your way out of town and get a cherry limeade. JUST DO IT.

I’m aware the drive to Winchester can seem a bit daunting, especially if you are coming from points closer-in to DC or Fairfax. However, it’s a pleasant, easy drive and there’s plenty of places to stop along the way, including Nalls Farm Market in Berryville where you can get fresh produce, and Hill High Marketplace which houses Bogati Winery and the Round Hill outpost of Leesburg favorite, Mom’s Apple Pie.  Both of these are right along the highway and require no detours or side roads- nothing more than a turn into the parking lot and a turn back out onto the highway when you’re ready to leave.