Closer Readings Commentary

An EDSITEment Tour of the National Mall

April showers bring May flowers, but in Washington, DC, the winds of March blow in the famous cherry blossoms which can be found framing some of the most famous memorial architecture in America, such as the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. This month's feature arrives in the nation's capital just in time to see the blossoms bloom. Join EDSITEment on a stroll along the National Mall as we visit a city rich in history and culture.

In 1790, George Washington selected the site of our capital city at the confluence point of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The capital's site would bridge the increasingly industrialized and urban northern coast with the growing plantation culture of the American south. (It was also located less than twenty miles from President Washington's home at Mt. Vernon). The city was carved out of territory that had previously been part of the states of Maryland and Virginia, including the small port towns of Georgetown (on the Maryland side) and Alexandria (on the Virginia side). The Alexandria territory was reintegrated into Virginia in 1846, making the city's current boundaries north of the Potomac River. The new city was originally diamond shaped, and Washington assigned the task of designing the capital to a former staff member of his army: Pierre-Charles L'Enfant (after whom L'Enfant Plaza, on the south side of The Mall, is named).

The city was not swift to establish itself aesthetically as a capital worthy of the new country's aspirations: foreign visitors, and even American politicians, often noted in the early decades of Washington's history that the city did not have the same style or appeal as its European counterparts. Much of the construction that was completed in Washington during those first twenty years was undermined or damaged by the war of 1812. Over the following nearly two hundred years, Washington has established its own unique visual style, with a city plan unlike the meandering streets of colonial cities like Boston, or the grids of Manhattan and Chicago. It has a low skyline since no building other than the Washington monument may exceed the height of the Capitol.

In 1829 James Smithson left his estate to the young United States with the express instruction to establish an educational institution. A chemistry professor at Oxford, Smithson had never even visited the United States. His bequest wasn't put to use by the Congress until 1846 when the Smithsonian Institution was finally established. The first of the Smithsonian buildings, known as The Castle, was constructed in 1855 in the center of what is today called The National Mall.

The National Mall is the home to many of our most recognizable national monuments, including the seat of our legislative branch of government, and is also the hub of the museums and institutions that make contemporary Washington a destination for worldwide tourists. It is also a source of many EDSITEment resources, so come on a walking tour to see what the Mall has to offer with EDSITEment as your guide!

Take a tour of the Mall

We begin our tour at the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, former home of EDSITEment and the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can learn a bit about the history of the building, which is a National Historical Site, and the Pennsylvania Avenue area through the EDSITEment-reviewed Website National Park Service Links to the Past and about Washington in general through Explore DC. If you snap a picture of Benjamin Franklin, majestically greeting you in front of the Old Post Office, he may invite you along for a private tour of D.C. Use this handy map of the Mall to follow along on the tour. Climb to the top of the Old Post Office tower to get a great view of the mall, and of our next destination: National Museum of American History.

The museum is an important part of the Smithsonian Institution, and contains an enormous collection of articles, artifacts, and historical objects that tell the story of America, from even before its inception to the present day. You will see important examples of American history, from an exhibition on Ben Franklin showing the same kind of suit you saw on this Founding Father as he set out to guide us on our stroll through the Mall.

Join Ben, as he leads us down the Mall to the National Archives, where many of our most important documents are held. The archives are an incredibly rich resource for students, scholars, and interested citizens who would like to learn more about the history of the United States. If you can't reach the National Archives by foot, you can always jump into the collection by going to the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom. On this Website, you can find a number of resources, including helpful guides to learning history with original documents, as well as access to the Archival Resource Catalogue.

Here Ben will proudly show us that the history of our country is recorded not only in the objects that have survived from earlier times, but also, and importantly, in the written documents that have recorded the words, thoughts, and actions of our citizens. Of course Ben's voice is included in two of our country's most significant documents establishing the country as a democracy: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Linger a while over these historic documents and then Ben may introduce you to the other Founding Fathers in a mural painted for the Archives much later by Barry Faulkner. For more about the people represented, see EDSITEment's The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said and The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met.

In addition to the collection of historical objects in the National Museum of American History and the collection of documents and records contained in the National Archives, the history and culture of the United States is also captured in the visual arts. Just a quick jaunt down the Mall from the Archives one can find the two buildings that make up the National Gallery. The sculpture, paintings, and photography contained in the Gallery's collections open windows on to life in America, from East to West, and from the past to the present. Works in the collection include images as famous as Gilbert Stuart's portraits of the first five United States presidents and portraits of other noteworthy contributors to the country's founding. The National Gallery isn't the only place on the National Mall where one can find an excellent collection of photographs that give insight into American history: in addition to having the premiere collection of published works in the United States, the Library of Congress also holds an enormous collection of recordings, films, posters, and photographs. As one of America's first librarians, Ben himself would certainly be impressed with the collection, accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed Website American Memory Project (Library of Congress). The American Memory Project has gathered collections that cover topics in American history as diverse as Matthew Brady's Civil War Photos; Slave Narratives; and Posters from the Works Progress Administration. It even contains and excellent resource for learning about the history of Washington, DC, entitled Washington As It Was. EDSITEment also has a number of lesson plans that link to these resources available from the American Memory Project, including Images at War; From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography; and Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement.

Departing from the front steps of the Library of Congress, just a short walk will take you to what is perhaps the most famous building in America: the U. S. Capitol building. It is in these halls that our country's laws are made by those we have chosen, through the process of elections, to represent us. The building sits atop a hill and looks out over the District of Columbia, a symbol of our representative democracy. You can learn more about the building, its history, and of course about the men and women who represent us in the federal government, by visiting the EDSITEment lesson plan, A Landmark Lesson: The United States Capitol Building and EDSITEment-reviewed Website U.S. Senate.

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Suggested activities

Now that you've gotten a taste of what the National Mall has to offer, you and your students or children can become a little more familiar with some of the specific resources available in Washington, D.C. through EDSITEment!

Grades K–5

Now that you've visited some of the highlights of the National Mall you can head out on this scavenger hunt! Where, among the museums and institutions that you've just visited virtually, can you find the following objects?

  • A Portrait of George Washington
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Constitution
  • Something connected to Benjamin Franklin
  • Images of the United States Civil War
  • Pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Delivering his "I Have a Dream" Speech
  • The names of all of the United States Senators

Answer Key

Now ask students to choose the museum or institution from this list that they would like most to visit. Ask them to explain why.

Grades 6–12

Have students choose one museum or institution on which to concentrate. They should search the site for three objects in the collection from different sections of the collection, and from different time periods. Have them write a brief overview of the three objects, documents, or images that they have chosen, and then explain why these objects represent American history and culture. Students should be sure to include the name of the institution that they have chosen to search, as well as URLs for each of the objects that they describe in their essays.


Have students choose one object each from three of the museums and institutions on this tour. Ask them to write a short essay explaining why the objects they have chosen provide a representation of American culture and history. This essay should include a brief overview of each of the objects, and should be sure to include the name of the institution and the URL where the object can be found.

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Featured lessons

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Featured websites

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