The Smithsonian Institution is the collective name for the world’s largest research and museum complex. Of the 19 museums, galleries and zoological park that comprise the Institution, most are found in Washington, D.C. with the majority located on the National Mall.
The National Mall is the area of D.C. between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building with the Washington Monument right in between the two. A long expanse of grass that appears more like a rectangular park, the Mall is familiar as the site of numerous gatherings and public protests.
The area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol is the location for eleven of the Smithsonian Museums including the newest National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Museum of the American Indian. The Smithsonian museums are popular not only because of the expansive exhibits, complimentary tours, family and teen-programming, but, they offer free admission as well.
Your first stop should be the Smithsonian Building known as “The Castle”. Built in 1855 it is the original museum. The red building is easily distinguished from all the surrounding marble and limestone and houses the Smithsonian Visitors Center with concierges standing by to assist. Be sure to pick up a Smithsonian Guide and Map that gives a brief overview of each museum. Among the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums include the National Air and Space Museum, Museum of American History, National Gallery of Art and Museum of Natural History.
Within the Air and Space Museum are 23 galleries that exhibit spacecraft and all things flight-related including the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module. A section on space travel reveals the answers to those questions that we have always been curious about but knew it wasn’t polite to ask.
The Museum of Natural History was popular long before it was the setting for Night at The Museum II. Dedicated to everything in nature it contains extensive exhibits on mammals, ocean animals, and an insect zoo. Timed admission tickets can be purchased to enter the butterfly pavilion. The small enclosure is kept at a very tropical temperature that limits the amount of time you can comfortable visit. Consider using the coat-check and dressing in bright layers if your goal is for a butterfly landing.
The Museum of American History is likewise dedicated to the social, technological and political development of the United States. A favorite exhibit explores the American Presidency and the lives of the former First Ladies. Many exhibits will spark moments of nostalgia especially when a new Pop Culture wing will be unveiled in 2018.
With so much to explore, the National Gallery of Art might be overlooked as just another art museum. Yet divided into two buildings and a Sculpture Garden, it is perhaps my new favorite museum for its sense of calm sheer beauty of the indoor courts. Free wifi allows guests to download audio tours to hear descriptions of the works at your own pace. Artists are allowed to reserve a spot to create their own masterpieces within the galleries which can be interesting to watch.
Allow for a minimum of 3 hours per museum. Knowing that you can’t possibly see it all, you may need to devise a plan that keeps everyone on the tour happy.
- Make a list of specific items within the museums that you want to see like the Star Spangled Banner or Dorothy’s Red Slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Creating your own museum scavenger hunt will keep everyone engaged.
- Highlight the exhibits of interest on each museum map ensuring you see not only the Hope Diamond but all the minerals and gems at the Museum of Natural History. Once your highlighted list is complete decide to explore further or head to another attraction.
- Explore the museum in descending order – start at the top and work your way down, making it easy to pick up where you left off, especially since they are open every day but December 25.
When everyone needs a little break, head outside. Many of the Smithsonian Museums have gardens that compliment the museums themselves. The Sculpture Gardens offers public outdoor ice skating during the winter months and live jazz on Friday evenings in the summer. Within the Mall are benches for resting and the grassy area is perfect for running around and burning off a little energy. If you are getting hungry, food service and snack items are available at most of the museums as well as nearby food trucks serving everything from ethnic foods to ice cream.
Security is tight around Washington and screenings take place before entering all public buildings. All bags and purses are subject to search, as well as individuals passing through metal detectors.
Remember while most of the Smithsonian museums are within the National Mall, some are located elsewhere within the District including the National Zoological Park.
Photo credits: J. Ingersoll
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