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Museums on the National Mall

A dozen free museums flank the National Mall between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument. It’s impossible to pick one highlight in this walkable treasure map of art, science and history. No two visits (and no two visitors) are alike.

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The collection, established in 1937 by a gift from industrialist Andrew Mellon to the United States, has grown so large that two major buildings, once classical, the other angular and a six-acre sculpture garden contain a rotating display of permanent works and traveling exhibitions. The permanent collection spans ancient to contemporary art.

There are impressive rooms of Italian Renaissance paintings including the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere; Northern European landscapes and portraits by the likes of Vermeer; Impressionist canvases full of light and movement by Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, the largest Calder mobile and an exciting light sculpture by Leo Villareal that zaps visitors on the moveable walkway from one building to the other. As to be expected the National Gallery is rich in diverse public programming: art movies and classical concerts on the weekends, hands-on activities for kids and ice skating in a rink atop the fountain in the center of the sculpture garden come winter.

Originally established in 1820, the U.S. Botanic Garden is the nation's oldest of its kind, and makes for a fantastic destination for the whole family. This American landmark is open daily, including weekends and holidays.

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A living museum dedicated to the aesthetic, cultural, economic, therapeutic and ecological importance of plants to the well-being of the plant, the U.S. Botanic Garden sits in the sunny Southwest corner of the Mall. Its position, so close to the U.S. Capitol speaks to the city’s foundations: George Washington has insisted that among the capital’s institutions be a botanical gardens.

The collection at the U.S. Botanic Gardens spans roses to rain forests, common to endangered, even rare plants that are displayed to emphasize their beauty, use and ecological importance. The indoor/outdoor gardens have  become a place of respite and research and during the December holidays, tiny trains. The seasonal display, “Seasons Greenings” reveals an elaborate miniature world dwarfed by plants, but the Botanic Garden’s year round is rich in programs for families and green thumbs.  Don’t miss the charming 19th century hothouse conservatory full of palms or the butterfly garden. 

One of the microclimates surrounding the National Museum of the American Indian pays tribute to people indigenous to America's wetlands.

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The most recent permanent addition to the National Mall, this museum expresses the diversity of culture, language, history, tradition and futures of indigenous peoples of North and South America, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Patagonia.

The museum holds the world’s largest collection of First Nations materials. The building on the National Mall is one of two that holds the collection -- the other, the George Gustav Heye Center is in Manhattan, NYC-- and its curvilinear exterior, native plant gardens and decoration was organized in participation with tribes before the facility opened in 2004. The experience, inside and out, that greets visitors, is imbued with the spirit of 12,000 years of culture. NMAI hosts free public programs throughout the year but the calendar in November is often the busiest as its Native American History Month.

A model of the first manned aircraft, the Wright Flyer built by two bicycle enthusiasts from Dayton, Ohio, is one of wonders at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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The world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft is also a center for study of the history of science and aviation as well as planetary science and geophysics. It is also a reliable source of Astronaut ice cream, just one of the kid-pleasing find in their large gift shop.

With a collection reflective of its vast subject matter, the National Air and Space Museum tells heroic backstories and explains scientific principles with actual objects, hands-on experiments and 3D movies. Treasures including Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis; the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer; a lunar rock sample (that visitors can touch); and astronaut space suits make this museum one of the most popular in the world.  The museum also contains planetarium and an IMAX theater that runs flight- and space-related movies as well as first run feature films on occasion. Admission to the museum is free, but an admission fee for some special events, like movies, is levied. NASM’s collection is in fact so large that a dedicated annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was opened in 2003 in Centreville, VA. It numbers the Enola Gay and the Space Shuttle Discovery among its many holdings.

The elephant in the National Museum of Natural History's rotunda is one of the largest land mammals on record.

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Step inside and you’re greeted by an African elephant, an emblem of the diversity of life: the very subject of this amazing museum. The most visited natural history museum in the world, NMNH, boasts an irresistible (and rotating) collection of 127 million items including dinosaur bones; ancient Egyptian mummies; and the storied Hope Diamond. It is also home to an international network of scientists who engage in research in fields including biodiversity, global climate change and the preservation of human culture.

With a heavy emphasis on experiential learning, there are surprises in store for junior scientists at the National Museum of Natural History. Attend the daily hissing cockroach feeding at the Orkin Insect Zoo; stand still to let butterflies land on your head inside; put on 3D glasses and watch an exciting IMAX movie; look up and spy the life-size model of the right whale hanging inside the Sant Ocean Hall; investigate samples belonging to the Smithsonian Institution in the Forensic Anthropology Lab.  Numerous gift shops including one dedicated to stuffed toy animals make taking a souvenir home (to cuddle) a cinch.

The underbelly of the concrete "doughnut" shows off the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's groovy side. The severity of the design was initially criticized, but it remains the biggest piece of abstract art in DC.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s collection of international modern and contemporary art and sculpture rests in, around, atop, behind and once, projected onto the bold concrete “doughnut” on legs. The permanent collection includes significant works by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and contemporary global stars like Ai Wei Wei and Jeff Koons.

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft in the early 1960s, the Hirshhorn is deliberately futuristic to compliment the artwork inside. The museum was inspired by the gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s private collection of paintings and sculpture to the Smithsonian in the early 1960s. The curved walls of the museum can make for impressive installations. And that spirit also imbues the sculpture garden that wraps the campus of this art museum. The permanent collection includes significant works by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and contemporary global stars like Ai Wei Wei and Jeff Koons. There’s a fair amount of interactivity. For example, pick up a postcard, fill it out and add your dream to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, one of the year-round installations. The art museum’s dynamic, challenging and at turns playful, subject matter has also been known to inspire spirited public discussions, movie festivals and after-hour dance parties. 

The Smithsonian Castle was the first of the Smithsonian museums and is a great starting point for newcomers. In addition to artifacts, the Castle features an overview movie (starring Ben Stiller) and a map of the Smithsonians.

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An excellent starting place for a day at the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Castle is home to information booths staffed by local experts.

Pick up a map and get some advice about how to make the most of your time at the world’s largest museum complex. Climb down the stairs to visit the crypt where James Smithson, the founding donor of the world’s largest museum complex, is buried. Construction on the red stone, Gothic Revival-style building, the first of the Smithsonian buildings, was begun in 1947.

The Freer & Sackler Gallery features ancient and contemporary art from Asia, including luxury metalwork from Iran and ceramics from China dating back to the 10th century.

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One half of the National Museum of Asian Art - the Freer Gallery is the other half - the Sackler houses decorative and devotional objects from across Asia. United, the collections hold over 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years.

The pyramidal shaped entry way behind the Smithsonian Castle leads to three subterranean levels stacked with treasures. Among the highlights of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are three thousand-year-old Chinese bronzes; ancient Islamic texts finely painted by a hair; voluptuous stone figures carved in Angkor Wat. The Sackler is connected to the Freer by an underground tunnel. Visitors cross between the two facilities without impediment and most of the public programs including the popular “ImaginAsia” family workshops.

The dining room of a British shipowner exquisitely decorated by James McNeill Whistler was purchased and reassembled by Charles Freer Lang to display ceramics. It is among the jewels at the Freer Gallery of Art.

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One half of the National Museum of Asian Art – the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is the other half - the Freer houses decorative and devotional objects from across Asia. United, the collections hold over 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years.

One of the city’s prettiest buildings, the Freer Gallery of Art is a classical Italianate palazzo opened in 1923, the first Smithsonian museum devoted solely to art. The collection largely is notable for its juxtaposition of Asian and American art, particularly paintings by American master James McNeil Whistler, including his decorative masterpiece, The Peacock Room. Created by Whistler for his client Charles Leland as a richly painted paneled room to display his collection of Asian ceramics, it was later purchased, each panel and jar, by industrialist Charles Freer who donated it along with the rest of his collection to the Smithsonian. Visitors are welcome to sit inside the room and once a month, the blinds are open allowing all to experience sunlight hitting the gold leaf to dazzling effect. The Freer is connected to the Sackler by an underground tunnel. Visitors cross between the two facilities without impediment and most of the public programs including the popular “ImaginAsia” family workshops.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art celebrates the visual art of Africa, including both modern and traditional ceramics, along with mosaics and a large collection of unique works.

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Dedicated to fostering a public interest in the visual arts of Africa, the National Museum of African Art displays part of its collection of 9,000 pieces in subterranean galleries.

Enter under the moon-shaped domes from the Enid Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle and discover decorative arts, sacred objects, textiles, ancient Egyptian carvings, masks, musical instrument, photographs, contemporary video installations and more. The Washington Post called the museum the most “important research facility for African art in America.” Accordingly, its museum shop is an unmatched trove of African toys, jewelry, books, music and art.

The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in a display case specially designed to prevent damage from light or humidity.

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A collection of more than 3 million objects take turns telling the story of the United States to the more than 4.3 million visitors a year who treat themselves to a visit to the National Museum of American History. The holdings include items from the Pilgrims’ 1620 landing in Plymouth Rock to the 2012 election.

Everyone has a favorite object inside the National Museum of American History, but it’s tough to pick just one. Among the iconic crowd-pleasing objects are the flag that inspired the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Greensboro lunch counter; the John Bull locomotive; the original Kermit the Frog puppet; Julia Child’s kitchen (including pots, pans, even fridge magnets);  Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and the inaugural gowns of many first ladies.  Specific collections that also speak of the American experience: lunch boxes, surf boards, video games, Girl Scout badges, and items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, number among the absorbing if temporary displays. The building is vast and maps can be picked up once each visitor has passed through security.  Visitors should also plan to catch at least one of the almost-daily history theater performances. Visitors are invited to engage with actors “living” the part of the Smithsonian’s first director Joseph Henry or join in a Civil Rights sit-in at free performances.  The museum houses two eateries and three gift shops including “The Price of Freedom” store where Army-style dog tags are personalized on the spot.