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Ce'sars thumb - a bronze sculpture in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, titled "Ce'sars Thumb".

The Smithsonian Museums: A Different Side of Washington, DC

By Rhonda Bidart

They are open 364 days a year and everyone has a standing invitation to visit anytime. The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex with 16 museums and galleries, plus the National Zoo.

While the impressive monuments, touching memorials, and government buildings are major Washington D.C. attractions, there is also so much to see in the Smithsonian Museums, located on the National Mall.

The Smithsonian Castle is a great place to start your visit. The Castle is the Institution’s original home and the easiest landmark to find on the National Mall. Inside you will find information specialists who will help you plan your visit.

They offer free brochures, scale models of the museums, and electronic wall

maps of the city of Washington. It is always a good idea to stop by the Castle because some programs, events, and exhibitions at the Smithsonian are subject to change.

The Ripley Center is a copper domed building located in the heart of the Mall. The Ripley Center contains some of the Smithsonian’s administrative offices, as well as a small conference center and meeting rooms. It has several exhibits and programs open to the public, including: The International Gallery, The Smithsonian Without Walls program, and The Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Services.

Wonders of Space

Chuck Yeager’s bright orange Bell X-1 rocket-powered airplane that he flew faster than the speed of sound in 1947 hangs from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum. For more than 25 years, this museum has been a must-see for visitors to Washington. There are 23 galleries here which tell the story of flight.

The layout of this museum makes it easy to find what interests you: If you want to see airplanes and aviation, spend your time in the west end of the museum. Rockets and spaceflight are in the east end. If you have children along the How Things Fly gallery is the place to go.

You will find more than 50 interactive exhibits that teach the principles of flight. You can produce a supersonic shock wave that you can actually see! Make sure to visit Milestones of Flight if you are short on time. You can see the Apollo 11 command module, the Bell X-1, Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and much more.

A Douglas DC3 airplane hanging from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is the only Smithsonian museum that is round! The Hirshhorn’s eye-catching architecture sets it apart from the other museums on the National Mall. This museum is an elevated hollow cylinder that’s 82 feet high and 231 feet in diameter.

The museum is named for Joseph H. Hirshhorn, an American collector of modern art who donated 12,000 artworks. The Hirshhorn is an art museum of "isms" - cubism, surrealism, modernism, impressionism, etc. Don’t miss the Improv Art room if you have children along. On certain Thursdays and Saturdays kids age 5-11 can create works of art after an interactive tour. Do not forget to wander through the sunken Sculpture Garden, located outside on the National Mall side of the museum.

Arts and Industries Building

The Arts and Industries Building is the home of a re-creation of the 1881 Exposition for which it is named. This is the original U.S. National Museum, that once held many items that are now on display in other Smithsonian museums. Galleries in this historic building present changing exhibitions from the Smithsonian as well as other museums.

The National Museum of African Art features the finest African sculptures, textiles, household objects, architectural elements, decorative arts, and musical instruments. The richness of this museum’s collection is drawn from more than 400 cultures found throughout Africa. If you have a child along, there is a free family guide available. It guides young people through the galleries by asking questions about the exhibits.

Easter island - visitors at the National Museum of Natural History in the Pacific Culture display, viewing an Easter Island Statue

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art will take you to faraway lands. These museums house an extraordinary collection of Asian Art. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in 1987 and it became the home of a major gift of nearly 1,000 art objects from art collector Arthur M. Sackler.

In 1906, Charles Lang Freer donated his collection of Asian Art to the Smithsonian, along with funds to endow it. Today, the collection has nearly 27,000 works of art. Together, the Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery form the national museum of Asian Art and are connected underground.

The Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is dedicated to exhibiting American crafts from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Here you will find U.S. crafts designed from glass, ceramic, metal, clay, wood, and fiber. The building, begun in 1859, was Washington D.C. first art museum. The Museum Store on the first floor has a large selection of art materials for children available for purchase.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are currently closed for renovation. Portions of both collections are traveling: Treasures To Go, which includes more than 500 paintings and sculptures from the American Art Museum, is scheduled to visit more than 70 museums across the nation. Portrait of a Nation, composed of exhibits from the National Portrait Gallery, will tour for four years.

The National Museum of American History is so large that if you have limited time, you should take a few minutes to plan and visit one or two areas that interest you most. There is simply no way to rush through this museum. Children will love the Hands On Science Center and the Hands On History Room.

Both Hands On rooms are closed on Mondays. There is a touching September 11th exhibit and the huge flag that was flown off of the Pentagon Building on September 11th is on view. The American History Museum is home to so many different exhibits.

The American Presidents and The First Ladies exhibits are fascinating. Money and Medals, Julia Child’s Kitchen, a Vietnam Memorial, Engines, Firearms, Machinery, and Submarines are just a few of the exhibits. Don’t forget to check out Judy Garland’s ruby slippers and Michael Jordan’s jersey.

Kids will especially love The National Museum of Natural History. There is a huge pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling in the Dinosaur exhibit. Ice Age Mammals and Early Life will definitely change the meaning of the words "a long time ago" for you. The Bones, Reptile Hall, and The Insect Zoo are where you will find the children. The Geology, Gems, and Minerals exhibit is a must see for the entire family. The Hope Diamond, the largest diamond in the world, is on display here. At the center of the museum is a magnificent African elephant in a display very much like its native habitat.

National Postal Museum

Don’t look for the National Postal Museum on the National Mall. You can find it located on Capitol Hill at the corner of First Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Volunteer docents lead tours daily. They are about an hour long and can accommodate up to 20 people. The Duck Stamp Story conveys the history of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamps. If you are short on time, start in Customers and Communities. Then head to the atrium exhibits, including the postcard stations.

First ladies - the entrance of the First Ladies Exhibit in the National Museum of American History.  From left to right - Grace Coolidge, Harriet Lane Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy, Frances Cleveland, Lou Hoover, and Nancy Reagan.

The Anacostia Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place. Exhibits here are constantly changing, however, they focus on the importance of community in the experience of minorities in D.C. Exhibits examine the historical and cultural traditions of Latinos and Africans.

Who doesn’t like the zoo? The National Zoological Park is located adjacent to Rock Creek Park. The Zoo has about 3,700 animals belonging to 450 different species. The Giant Pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, are a must see.

Jana, a Masai giraffe was born on January 18, 2001. Kandula was born last year and is an Asian elephant who loves the water. You can watch elephant training demonstrations in the elephant yard and sea lion and seal training are held everyday. Visit Amazonia - the indoor tropical rain forest and the Komodo dragons at the Reptile Discovery Center.

Contact Rhonda Bidart.

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