Collectively called the Smithsonian Institution, the world-renowned museum and research complex consists of 15 separate museums and the National Zoo in Washington, DC. From the origins of man at the Natural History Museum to the future of space travel at the Air and Space Museum, the museums of the Smithsonian cover an array of fascinating areas of study.
The Smithsonian Institution is sometimes referred to as America’s treasure chest because of the diverse artifacts it houses. Whether you’re interested in American history or Asian art, giant pandas or stamp collecting, there’s a Smithsonian museum for you. By attendance, the most popular Smithsonian museums are the Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American History Museum and the National Zoo. First-time visitors tend to seek these out, but we recommend reading a bit about each museum and visiting those which interest you. With 15, it’s virtually impossible see them all in one visit, but planning to see three or four during a weeklong vacation would be a realistic goal.
Air and Space Museum: The most popular museum in the world by attendance numbers, the National Air and Space Museum houses 23 galleries that trace the history of flight. Look for the 1903 Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShipOne, Apollo 11 command module and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center: An extension of Air and Space located just outside of DC in Dulles, Va., Udvar-Hazy is an eye-popping airplane hangar with dozens of famous air and space vehicles, including the Enola Gay, Concorde, Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird and the Boeing Stratoliner. Most recently, the museum welcomed the Space Shuttle Discovery.
National Zoo: Most definitely the wildest Smithsonian, the National Zoo is home to approximately 2,000 animals, including the famous giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Highlights also include an African Savanna, Asia Trail and Kids’ Farm.
Natural History Museum: A family favorite featuring dinosaur bones, a life-size whale, a butterfly habitat and the jaw-dropping Hope Diamond. Look for the giant stuffed African elephant greeting guests in the rotunda, and see a 3D film at the museum’s IMAX theater.
American History Museum: A treasure trove of American history, the museum is home to pop-culture items like Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the original Muppets to artifacts from the United States’ most heart-wrenching historical eras, such as uniforms from the Civil War and the Greensboro Lunch Counter, which sparked one of the first major civil rights-era protests when four students were denied service after sitting at the segregated counter.
American Indian Museum: One of the largest and most diverse collections of Native art and artifacts in the world, the National Museum of the American Indian features exhibits from Native communities across the hemisphere. Look for Geronimo’s rifle in Our Peoples gallery, imagiNations activity center and authentic fare at Mitsitam Café.
Anacostia Community Museum: Shining a lens on urban life, the Anacostia Community Museum examines, documents and interprets the impact of historical and contemporary social issues on urban communities.
Postal Museum: Even if you’re not a stamp collector, the Postal Museum is a fascinating place. An updated exhibition about the Pony Express, a vintage stagecoach, and rare and important stamps tell the story of how America delivers its mail.
African American History and Culture Museum (Coming soon): With a 2015 anticipated opening, the Smithsonian’s newest museum will be a place to learn about the African American experience and how it has helped shape America. A preview gallery is open at the National Museum of American History.
Many of the Smithsonian museums are located on the National Mall. In fact, the Smithsonian has its own Metro stop on the orange and blue lines. There are others scattered throughout Washington, DC (the National Zoo in Woodley Park and the Postal Museum near Union Station) and even one in Virginia (the Udvar-Hazy Center). You can get to nearly all of them via the Metro.
African Art Museum: Spanning the diverse continent of Africa, the museum showcases traditional and contemporary art. Look for the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, a private collection of more than 500 African artifacts collected in the mid-20th century by private collectors Paul and Ruth Tishman.
American Art Museum: Tracing the American experience through art, the museum’s collection includes thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, folk arts and decorative arts from the colonial period through today. Lunch in the peaceful Kogod Courtyard is not to be missed.
National Portrait Gallery: Connected to the American Art Museum, the Portrait Gallery displays an array of portraits that collectively tell the story of the United States. The gallery houses America’s Presidents, the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Arts and Industries Building (Closed for renovation): The original home of the National Museum (and the second-oldest Smithsonian building next to “The Castle”), the Arts and Industries Building opened in 1881 in time to host the inaugural ball for President James A. Garfield. Many of the original collections have since been moved to other Smithsonian museums. The building, a National Historic Landmark, is currently undergoing historical refurbishment.
Freer Gallery of Art: The Freer is home to one of the country’s premier collections of Asian art, with pieces dating from Neolithic times to the early 20th century. The museum is also where James McNeill Whistler’s famous Peacock Room is displayed.
The Sackler Gallery: The Sackler also houses an impressive collection of Asian art, including South Asian sculpture, Chinese jades and bronzes, and modern Japanese ceramics.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: It’s hard to miss the Smithsonian’s modern art museum. Some say the cylindrical building looks like a doughnut. But inside and in the adjacent sculpture garden, you’ll find works by Rodin, Matisse and Moore, as well as emerging artists.
Renwick Gallery: Located near the White House, the Renwick Gallery is dedicated to American contemporary crafts and decorative arts from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Be sure and check out the unique crafts for sale in the gift shop. (**Note: The Renwick Gallery is currently closed for a two-year renovation**)
Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) – The perfect starting point for anyone new to the Smithsonian Institution, the building houses an information center and the permanent exhibition Smithsonian Institution: America’s Treasure Chest. And don’t miss the working carousel out front!