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The Smithsonian Museums and Parks

One of the wonderful aspects of Washington DC is that it contains the biggest museum complex in the world. The Smithsonian Institute is a conglomeration of sixteen widely different buildings and parks. Eleven of them are downtown between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, lining a large grassy field known as "The Mall." Four other museums and park are located in various suburbs of DC, easily accessible by the Metro subway system.

The legacy of an Englishman who never saw the USA

An Englishman who had never set foot in America founded the Smithsonian Institute. In 1829, James Smithson bequeathed over half a million dollars to the U.S. government to create an institute "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The United States government eventually used the gift to catalogue mankind's current knowledge in its museums, to fund science research, art projects, and to further exploration into unknown areas. Today, the government is still responsible for 75% of the institutes funding with the rest coming from private donations.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Washington DC © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
The Air and Space Museum has the original aircraft used by the Wright Brothers as well as the Spirit of St. Louis, the first airplane to make a solo transatlantic crossing from New York to Paris.

The Mall, at the center of DC, is within easy walking distance of the Capitol Building, the White House and most of the monuments. The Smithsonian Metro station, near the center of the Mall, provides convenient access and brings you only one block away from the original Smithsonian administrative building. Federal Triangle, Archives-Navy Memorial and L'Enfant Plaza Metro stations are also within easy walking distance to one or more of the museums.

Centrally located and free to the public

All of the museums are open from 9 am to 5:30 pm every day except Christmas Day. The least crowded times are in the winter when the weather is at its worst. The summer months (June through August) are the busiest times. Weekend days are typically the most crowded, particularly around summer holidays such as Independence Day (July 4th), or Memorial Day (the last Monday in May). The quietest day is usually Monday, which is also a good day to get into any exhibit that needs a time-ticket entry (more about that later).

The museums, parks, and zoo are all free, although some special exhibits may charge a modest entrance fee. ($3.00 to $5.00 per adult). Some of the museums have special Hands-On Centers for children, or special exhibits, which require timed-entry tickets. These free tickets are usually issued outside the exhibit on the same day and specify the time you may enter. Warning, you may want to get your tickets as soon as you reach the museum, because the special rooms are very popular, and the tickets are usually gone by lunchtime.

Some of the museums, such as the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museums, also run IMAX movies (70 mm films) or special interactive exhibits which cost around $6.00 a person. These shows vary throughout the year, but you can find a current listing is at the Smithsonian website.

The most popular museums

Some unique exhibits are housed in the Arts and Industries Building and the original Smithsonian administrative building. The latter is usually referred to as "The Castle" because its red brickwork and ornate towers. The Castle is largely made up of administrative offices but the center area is devoted to tourist information and the few computers that line the walls can help you locate any special or temporary exhibits. James Smithson's sarcophagus is located in the north entry. The Arts and Industries building is used for temporary exhibits as well as a 19th century look at American life. It currently houses an exhibit that will form the core of the National Museum for the American Indian collection.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Washington Dc © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
The National Museum of American History displays full-size trains and tractors, unusual exhibits of popular culture.

The three most popular museums in the area are the Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History. All three museums are quite large and would require a minimum of two to four hours to completely view.

The space shuttle, the hope diamond and the ruby slippers

Each museum is truly unique. The National Museum of American History displays full-size trains and tractors, unusual exhibits of popular culture such as the ruby shoes from the Wizard of Oz, a collection of inaugural gowns from the First Ladies, and the American flag that inspired the national anthem. The National Museum of Natural History is famed for its displays of minerals and gems including the Hope Diamond, animals including the largest squid ever found, and the bones of many prehistoric creatures. The Air and Space Museum has the original aircraft used by the Wright Brothers as well as the Spirit of St. Louis, the first airplane to make a solo transatlantic crossing from New York to Paris. It also contains historic Mercury and Gemini space capsules, many rocket ships and a lunar landing module.

The Smithsonian art collection is spread over four buildings and two parks. The two building complex of the National Museum of American Art is the largest. It contains thousands of American paintings, a collection of Degas sculptures, Renaissance paintings and impressionist masterpieces. The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture garden focuses on 20th Century art, while the beautiful Freer Museum contains a fine collection of Asian art and the world's most complete collection of Whistler's work. Outside of the National Archives building and beside the National Museum of Natural History is a second lovely sculpture garden that focuses on 20th century art.

In addition, the National Museum of African Art is located just behind the Castle. Nearby, the underground and often overlooked Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is devoted to ancient Asian art including some 4,500-year-old bronze vessels. A new museum is presently under construction adjacent to the Air and Space Museum. The National Museum for the American Indian, currently housed in New York City with exhibits in the Arts and Industries building will be located there by 2003.

Off The Mall

The National Zoological Park on Connecticut Ave. (Metro Station: Woodly Park-Zoo or Cleveland Park) is probably the only free zoo in American and an excellent way to spend an afternoon. Highlights includes the two new pandas from China, the indoor Amazonia Exhibit, the Cheetah Conservation Station and the Great Outdoors Flight Cage where rare birds have a huge area to soar.

The National Portrait Gallery on 8th and F Streets (Metro station: Gallery Place-Chinatown) is devoted to making history come alive by putting faces to the famous names. Exhibits include the Hall of Presidents, and a collection of portraits of famous sports and entertainment figures.

The National Postal Museum is right outside Union Station (a train station and Metro stop). Besides having a very complete postal collection, the museum also includes planes, buggies and other historical memorabilia relating to postal history.

The Renwick Gallery (Metro station: Farrogut North) was the first of Washington's private art museums. Its current exhibits are about contemporary crafts and decorative arts as well as a section on whimsical art.

Last but certainly not least is the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (Metro station: Anacostia station and a short bus ride). This museum started as a community outreach program and has grown into a mission of documentation, protection, and interpretation of African American culture and heritage. It continues its outreach program through area schools but also contains wonderful exhibits on the black immigrants in Washington DC, special exhibits on African-American leaders in politics, industry and entertainment.

Written by: Carla Lee Suson
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Washington DC