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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

My Guide to the Smithsonian Museums, Part One

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The Smithsonian Institution Map

I did a lot of research before visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Before I arrived in town, I knew exactly which of the 16 museums in and around D.C. I wanted to visit. It was all laid out, highlighted, bullet-pointed, and arranged in neat piles as only my anal retentive self is capable of doing. Since not everyone is so obnoxiously organized, here’s part one of a quick guide the Smithsonian Museums I visited in Washington, D.C. – in order as they sit on the south side of the National Mall. Part two, the north side of the mall and beyond, will come later this week.

The Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle

Even though there’s not much here, this is the place to start. The Smithsonian Castle offers visitors a good overview of what’s available in the other museums. So if you’re not sure what you want to see, stop in at the Castle, talk with the staff at the information desk, and learn about all of the fabulous – and free! – museums under the Smithsonian umbrella. This is also where you can learn about James Smithson, and how the museums which bear his name came to be.

The Smithsonian Castle garden

The Smithsonian Castle garden

The Freer Art Gallery

Don’t walk back out the front to the National Mall when you’re done in the castle. Instead, walk out the back door, which is through the main hall and directly across from the front door, and into the garden. Take a right into the Sackler Art Gallery – which I’ll get to next – and walk on through until you get to the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Peacock Room

The Peacock Room

The Freer is the first of the Smithsonian museums devoted to the fine arts. The building now is home to pieces from six millennia of history on the Asian continent. The highlight is Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room – located in the southeast corner of the building’s main floor – a London dining room designed by James McNeill Whistler and decorated with Chinese porcelain. On the third Thursday of each month, the shutters to the room are opened so the sun’s rays can highlight the various hues of gold, blue, and green.

The Sackler Gallery

Unless you have a deep interest in Asian art, it should take you no longer than an hour to see the Freer Art Gallery. Once you’re done, head downstairs and follow the signs back to the Sackler Gallery. This building is essentially an extension of what you saw in the Freer. The art is impressive, and incredibly beautiful and intricate, but, again, unless you have a great interest in Asian art, you should need no more than an hour to see it. I wandered through, looking at the various pieces at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it, although had no particular attraction – as I did with other museums – that would hold me there any longer.

An Iranian disc in the Sackler Gallery

An Iranian disc in the Sackler Gallery

The African Art Museum

From the Sackler it’s easy to get to the African Art Museum, just follow the tunnels and signs. Or, if easy isn’t easy enough and you get lost like me, just ask one of the several security guards in the museums for directions. Most are very friendly and helpful, willing to discuss all of the pieces with visitors and give additional tidbits of information that might not otherwise be on display. Of course, in all of this, just like getting lost, I had to run into one security guard who was not exactly cordial, and that was at the African Art Museum. Although photography is allowed in all of the museums, with a few exceptions for various pieces, an overzealous security guard kept me from taking any pictures in the African Art Museum. As a result of being followed throughout the museums by this guy, I exited and headed back to the National Mall. The pieces in the African Art Museum were beautiful, some even causing me to ooh and ahh, but since I had no particular interest in that type of art, and was annoyed with being followed, I left and continued east along the mall toward the U.S. Capitol.

A Roy Lichtenstein sculpture outside the Hirshorn

A Roy Lichtenstein sculpture outside the Hirshorn

The Hirshorn Museum

If you have a love for modern and contemporary art, like me, then the Hirshorn is the place for you. The large round building, elevated so you walk through a sculpture garden on your way to the main entrance, has a large collection, but much of what is on display is rotating. Very few items I saw were permanent, so what I saw during my visit – sculptures from Ai Weiwei, some of the few paintings from Clyfford Still not on display at his museum in Denver, and pieces from Andy Warhol – may not be there when you visit. Nonetheless, what is there will surely impress any modern art lover. If it’s not your thing, take the time to visit anyway – after wandering around the two circular levels you’re presented with a great view of the National Mall (bottom of page).

A painting by Clyfford Still

A painting by Clyfford Still

The Air and Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum

By the time I made it to the Air and Space Museum – one of the gems of the Smithsonian Institution – I was starving, so I stopped in its cafeteria for a late lunch. Other buildings also have cafeterias, the one in the American Indian Museum is even Zagat rated, but the only one that does out of all of those visited to this point is the Smithsonian Castle. None of the other three museums I visited, or the Arts and Industries building, which was closed at the time, had restaurants. So, if you manage your time like me, you’ll arrive here in time for a late lunch.

Touching the moon rock

Touching the moon rock

You could easily spend the rest of the day, if not even a full day, in the Air and Space Museum. The place is huge and jammed full of amazing exhibits. And it all starts at the main entrance off the National Mall with a piece of moon rock. Yes, a piece of the moon. Where else but the Smithsonian can you go and actually touch a piece of the moon? Sure, it’s now smooth from the countless oils and what not rubbed on it from out people’s hands, but it’s still a piece of the moon. And it’s easily bypassed when you walk in unless you’re paying attention, so heads up – look for it amongst the huge exhibits of space capsules, orbiters, landers, and missiles, all of which are in the same massive lobby area.

An Air and Space Museum map

An Air and Space Museum map

From the lobby, turn right and walk past the store to the America by Air gallery to see a Douglas DC-3 – all 16,875 pounds of it hanging from the ceiling – a Douglas DC-7, which you can walk through, and nose of a Boeing 747, which is actually accessible from the upper level. We’ll get there in a moment, so stay grounded for now and continue on to the check out the other planes in the Golden Age of Flight exhibit in the opposite corner from America by Air, as well as the Jet Aviation one, which sit exactly opposite America by Air.

The American by Air Hall

The American by Air Hall

I found each of these galleries, as well is the one right across from the store on Early Flight, particularly interesting. But unless you have a huge interest and knowledge of aircraft, things might starting running together a bit by this point. They were for me, so I simply walked through them, smiling and nodding my head knowingly while pretending to read the signs. The highlights – the things I had come to see – were still ahead, so I continued on, passing through the Welcome Center area in the main lobby, the exhibition on How Things Fly, and another one called Looking at Earth, finally arriving at all of the magnificent space exhibitions.

Climbing onto the lunar module

Climbing onto the lunar module

Flanked by galleries called Explore the Universe and Moving Beyond Earth is backup Apollo 11 lunar module. I was in pure geek heaven when I saw it, so I walked around the display several times playing with all of the hands-on displays. There are bunches throughout the museum, especially on each side of the lunar module, so this is a great place to bring kids and let them run wild. And run wild they do, the echoes of their screams audible throughout the museum during my visit.

The Space Race Hall

The Space Race Hall

A hall on the Space Race is also right next to the lunar module, but it is better experienced from above. Before heading up, though, stop and see Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn’s space suits, as well as the other items on display on the ground level. Once you’re done, head upstairs on the nearby staircase to the second level and look down upon on the missile pit and take time to walk through the Skylab Orbital Workshop, a must do for any Air and Space Museum guest.

Continue walking back toward the center of the building, walking past the IMAX theater – unless you have the time for a show – and take a peek at all of the aircraft suspended from the ceiling. The highlight, at least for me, is the Spirit of St. Louis – the plane in which Charles Lindbergh cross the Atlantic in 1927.

Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis

Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis

From here you’ll keep on keepin’ on and walk past a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the planetarium on your way to the upper part of the America by Air hall, which is where you can walk into the nose of a Boeing 747. It doesn’t take long, and it’s not a huge highlight, but it’s neat nonetheless, as is seeing all of those planes suspended from the ceiling. (The architecture and engineering of this building must me on steroids in order to keep all of these planes in the air!)

Just like on the lower level, I wandered through the nearby halls – Sea-Air Operations, World War II Aviation, Great war in the Air, and Exploring the Planets – with no particular interest or “must see” items circled on my brochure. It wasn’t until I was back in the Pioneers of Flight area, the hall where you’ll see the Spirit of St. Louis, that my interested was ratcheted up a few notches again. Now, before I go on, this not to say that I didn’t appreciate the efforts of the people who designed these other aircrafts or flew them, particularly those in the wars, it’s just that my overall interest and knowledge of flight, like most people, is limited to a few specific items that I knew I had to see while I was in Washington, D.C.

Amelia Earhart and her Vega

Amelia Earhart and her Vega

One of those planes was the Lockheed 5B Vega, the plane flown across the Atlantic by Amelia Earhart in 1932. I’ll be honest here; it wasn’t until Amy Adams played Earhart in the second Night at the Museum movie that I really had any interest. My personal crush aside, though, I still would have wanted to see the plane before seeing the movie. The historical importance of it, something which always seems to grab my attention, is indisputable and makes it worth a look all on its own. The other planes in the area, apart from the Spirit of St. Louis, can’t say that, but the one in the next room surely can.

With only two halls left, I found exactly what I had spent the rest of my time in the museum waiting to see. The final hall, Apollo to the Moon, was interesting, yes, but the Wright Brothers room, complete with their original flyer, was what I had starred on my map several times over. It was what I wanted to see more than anything else in the whole building, and so I slowed down and took my time to read all of the displays and admire the flyer from several different angles.

The Wright Brothers Flyer

The Wright Brothers’ Flyer

When it’s all said and done, it’s easy to spend a full day at the Air and Space Museum. Heck, you could probably spend two full days here. It all depends on how much of an aviation geek you happen to be. For me, I made it through in a few hours, stopping only to really take in the highlights and doing some walk-by admiring of the other items on display. All of them are great, and the museum is just as fantastic as everyone raves, but in the end it’s all up to your personal tastes and how much else you want to see in town. Before the day was over, I knew there was one other museum which I wanted to see…

The American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum

I went into the final museum on the south side of the National Mall, the American Indian Museum, with the preconceived notion that it would only be about Indians who have or currently do inhabit the United States. I was pleasantly surprised to have that idea shattered while I watched the introductory film on the top floor of the museum. After walking in, start up there with the movie (which really is fantastic) and work your way down through the various exhibitions.

The American Indian Museum is fantastically done, and creates an excellent balance between all of the cultures of the American Indians – from Patagonia in the tip of Chile and Argentina, to those from Alaska and Canada, as well as the Polynesian peoples across the Pacific Ocean. I can’t say there are any particular highlights, though, nothing I’d classify as “must see,” with the exception of the whole museum. There’s nothing like the Wright Brothers’ Flyer here, or an Apollo lunar module, just great history and displays on cultures across the Americas.

Glass Horse Mask by Marcus Amerman (2008)

Glass Horse Mask by Marcus Amerman (2008)

The historical displays and the descriptions, the storytelling, and the artwork is all fantastic. And while it probably shouldn’t have been, it was a surprise to me. I walked into the museum with only a few minutes to spare in my already overly busy sightseeing schedule, thinking I’d simply take a look, and left with a desire to return on a future visit to Washington, D.C. to spend more time in the museum. None of the others I visited on this day held the same interest for me, so be sure not to do what I did – take your time and slow down, see this museum on another day. The others can all be fit into one day, but this one is deserving of more attention than I was able to give it with only an hour left before closing.

The view of the National Mall from the Hirshorn's top floor

The view of the National Mall from the Hirshorn’s top floor

What was behind me was amazing. What lay ahead was going to be even more so, since the two Smithsonian museums – the Natural History Museum and the American History Museum – that I most wanted to see were awaiting my grand entrance the next day. As I said in the introduction above, though, those will be discussed in part two; there’s way too much awesomeness in the Smithsonian to try to fit it all into one post. Heck, they could all be given a great deal of time, but there’s just so much to see and so much to do in Washington, D.C. And the best part of it? The best of the Smithsonian? It’s all free!

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9 Comments on “My Guide to the Smithsonian Museums, Part One”

  1. The Guy March 11, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Wow, so much and it is all free! It looks like a great deal and lots of fascinating exhibits. I must admit though that I find big museums too much. I get tired and eventually bored. Crave food and a drink and end up rushing things towards the end and miss stuff and don’t appreciate them. I dare say this is a place you have to keep going back to so you can appreciate it in small doses.

    I look forward to your next post on the Smithsonian.

  2. midlifewanderlust1965 March 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    I was there in 2000. It was defiantly one of the highlights of my visit to DC.

    • Jason's Travels March 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

      I really want to get back and see the ones I missed, which I’ll discuss in part two. There are just too many great museums in that town!

  3. Gray Cargill March 14, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Very nice overview, Jason! I’ve been thinking I’d like to get back to DC for a visit, since I’ve only been once (many years ago) and only for one day. There’s so much I haven’t seen yet, just at the Smithsonian, let alone anywhere else. This whets my appetite.

    • Jason's Travels March 14, 2013 at 11:17 am #

      You could spend a month there and only really scratch the surface. I look forward to reading of your adventures if you go!

  4. mascrapping April 26, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    You might enjoy the series that I am doing on Scrapbooking our vacation to Washington DC at http://mascrapping.com/category/vacations/washington-dc-vacation-2012/

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Guide to the Smithsonian Museums, Part Two | Jason's Travels - March 13, 2013

    […] part one of my guide to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. I touched on the highlights of what to see in the […]

  2. The Official Guide to the Smithsonian | Jason's Travels - March 20, 2013

    […] brief guides to visiting the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. You can read them both here, in part one and part two. But if you really want to explore the Smithsonian, you need to get to the core of all […]

  3. Washington DC 2012: Smithsonian | MASCrapping - April 26, 2013

    […] My Guide to the Smithsonian Museums, Part One (jasonstravels.com) […]

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