Review of "Smithsonian Institute"

published 28/06/2004 | mystikchick17
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Pro Free, educational, fun, stuff for everyone. It's amazing!
Cons There's so much to see!
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"A treasure trove of delights"

The Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle

So New York has the Met. Big deal. Washington has something far better (in my humble opinion): the Smithsonian Institute. The Institute covers a wide variety of museums scattered around the downtown Washington D.C. area and beyond. The institute includes museums devoted to African and Asian Art, American History, a modern art museum, natural history, and air and space, as well as the zoo. (In total, there are 15 different buildings – check out for more information).
There's so much incredible stuff to see, and all the museums have both regular and changing exhibits, all of which are simply phenomenal. And the best part of all? It's all free. Not a single cent. Ever. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a selection of the Smithsonian Institute museums and galleries.
Natural History Museum:

This is probably the best bet if you're touring the museums with small children. My mom used to take me and my brother down here on a regular basis when we were younger, and I still remember being entranced by the exhibits, but learning at the same time because I was having fun. As you enter the museum, you will be greeted by the giant elephant, which is centered in the rotunda, and from personal experience, makes a great meeting point if you get separated. There's a great permanent exhibit on the evolution from life - you walk through a room that's designed to make it look like you're underwater, with lovely paintings of prehistoric underwater creatures.

This leads directly into what most little kids will find the coolest part of the exhibit: the dinosaurs. The museum has several fossil remains that tower above the crowds of little kids who look up at them with a mixture of fear and awe. There's even a room where you can see the scientists working on restoring/working on current skeletons. Accompanying the displays are highly informative and uncomplicated descriptor boards that tell you about the animal and the world in that era.

The other high quality permanent exhibit at the Natural History museum is the newly renovated Hall of Gems and Geology, which, among other treasures, houses the famed Hope Diamond. The diamond, which is famous partially for the "curse" associated with it, is truly spectacular, and is the centerpiece of the Museum's gem collection. I remember, as a little girl, imaging what it would be like to play dress up with a necklace like that! Once you move past the semi-precious/precious stones (all set in FABULOUS pieces of jewelry), there's a huge exhibit devoted to geology, but it's designed in a wonderfully fun way to engage a child's natural sense of curiosity. There are hands on bits, cool diagrams, and all in all, a highly engaging exhibit. For those who can stand it, I believe there is also an insect zoo located on the premises, but I've never ventured there.

Taking your kids to this museum is sure to entertain even the most cynical "museums suck" child, and if all else fails, you can avail yourself of the massive IMAX theater, although the tickets for those shows are rather expensive, but the movies are well made, so if you're up for shelling out a bit of cash, this is a great choice.
For more information:
National Air and Space Museum:

This museum is also a good choice for young children with a budding interest in space flight or airplanes, and has some truly fantastic exhibits. As you walk in, be sure to look up at the ceiling, for there are replicas of famous planes from history, from the Wright Brother's hang glider to "The Spirit of St. Louis," all suspended in mid-air. One of the main attractions for the younger visitor, is of course, the giant space shuttle model, where you can climb inside and see what the inside of a space shuttle really looks like. There's always a long line outside this one! There are also films and exhibits upstairs on the history of space travel, the moon landing, etc.

Memory fails me as to whether the recent exhibit on the Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima) is displayed here or at the new wing of the museum adjacent to Dulles Airport, but apparently the plane is well worth checking out for history buffs. I do know there was a controversy from bomb survivors saying that the exhibit did little to acknowledge the human suffering this technological advance wrought, but I don't know if the museum rectified it or not.

Asides from the exhibits, there's an IMAX theater here that shows some truly fantastic films on space exploration and discovery, and a hands-on area for little kids to learn about science. A few years ago, when I worked at a summer camp, we brought the kids here and they had a blast. There's a flight simulator (intensely popular with boys of all ages), experiments relating to physics, gravity, and the like, and all explained in a very easy to understand manner for kids. The museum clearly recognizes the influence they can exert on young, active, inquisitive minds, and makes sure they do all they can to capture them into a more educational bent. This museum and the above, along with the zoo are the best of the Institute for children, and rank with Public Television for their educational value.
For more information:

The National Zoo:

The Zoo is located away from the main Smithsonian Galleries, but is still on the Metro. Assuming you’ve taken the Metro to the Mall, you’ll have to take that stop and transfer to the Red Line at Metro Center, or walk over to Judiciary Square and take the train to Woodley Park/Zoo. Along with the museum of Natural History, this was one of my favorite places to go as a child. The zoo is, admittedly, slightly out of date compared to its more glamorous national counterparts, but it’s still worth a visit. The zoo requires a lot of walking, so make sure you plan accordingly if going with small kids.

The Panda House is definitely the star attraction of the zoo, and you generally have to wait in line to see the two newest inhabitants of the house. There’s also a great reptile house, filled with snakes that look perfectly harmless, until you read the information panel which informs you that they could kill you within seconds if they bit you! The aviary consists of a huge variety of birds, but these are kept within the mesh enclosure, so they’re not as spectacular as the other animals in the zoo.

Perhaps the best part of the zoo, though, is the primates. They have gorillas, and a great park for orangutans. If you get lucky, you may catch an orang swinging merrily over the wires that crisscross the zoo for their swinging pleasure! There’s also a host of smaller, cuter primates such as gibbons and lemurs, and the information panels, while not spectacular, do tell you where they’re from, what they like to eat, etc. The elephant house is also always a perennial delight, but be warned – if you step inside, the stench is overpowering. Still, it’s always a treat to see these gentle giants lumber about, and the baby elephant is adorable!

There are also tigers and lions, and there were at one point rhinos, but I believe they’ve been temporarily moved elsewhere while their habitat is renovated and improved. Overall, the zoo isn’t a world class establishment, and in comparison to say, the Singapore or San Francisco zoos, it’s quite shabby, but I’ll always love it, and it’s worth a visit for sure.
More information:
The Freer and Sackler Art Galleries

These two galleries are joined together through an underground passage, and frequently promote events together. The two galleries are devoted to Asian art, and between them, have an incredible array of exhibits and artifacts that are always worth checking out. Some of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen have been hosted by the Sackler in particular.

Take the current offerings: the Freer has a collection of lithographs by the American artist James MacNeil Whistler detailing his life in Paris during the Belle Epoque. The scenes function as a photo album of sorts, recording his wife and sister-in-law playing the piano, gossiping in the garden, or having a picnic. It’s a fascinating and touching look into the private life of a famous artist.

Crossing over to the Sackler, there were three outstanding exhibits. The first concerned the rediscovery of buried statues of the Buddha from Qingzhou province in China. The statues were beautifully lit, in rooms that were painted a deep, muted shade of blue that seemed to enhance a sense of tranquility as I viewed the images. There were highly informative and interesting explanations of how the statues originally looked, an analysis of the various artistic and regional styles at play, and the methods in which the statues were made.

Then there was “Caliphs and Kings” which featured pottery from Islamic Spain, al-Andalusia. It was incredible to see how the interplay of faiths during that time period resulted in a crossover of artistic styles, for even in pottery created during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, after the overthrow of the Moors, a strong Islamic influence is still detected. As my mother rightly said, it’s a phenomenal resource, to have access to high quality exhibits such as this. Lastly, a third exhibition focused on the calligraphic expressions of faith from Japan’s major religions. There’s also a large collection of permanent artifacts, primarily statues from South and South-East Asia, complemented by the East Asian exhibits in the Freer. There are even workshops at the Sackler for kids aged 7-14, which complement the current exhibits and allow them to have fun and be creative at the same time, so you can wander around in peace.
For more information:

Hirshhorn Museum:

Although I’ve never made it inside the Hirshhorn, the museum is dedicated to focusing on “modern and contemporary art.” What this essentially translates into is a collection covering artists from Rodin to Alexander Calder, Francis Bacon, and more. There is also a rather nice sculpture garden associated with the museum, which features some amusing works (a flat, plastic house), symbolic ones (a pole stuck into the ground), and some large stone sculptures, whose purpose I’m not exactly sure of, but I think they’re meant to be Japanese inspired. At any rate, the gardens are a nice place to walk through and admire or laugh at the art, depending on who you are, or sometimes, to just stare at in bewilderment. The whole area is very green and lush, which makes it a very pleasant atmosphere to absorb and enjoy the artwork surrounding you. The gallery does have a complete collection of its works online at

So there you have it: just a piece of the whole pie. I’ve talked about 5 museums, with another ten left on the list. If ever you are in Washington and have the time, a visit to at least one of these museums is imperative. They’re simply too great a value to pass up on, especially given the fact that they’re free.
Other information:
The Smithsonian Institute also organizes a yearly folklife festival, featuring grassroots arts and crafts from different regions. The festival is held on the National Mall, in between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. There is no admission, and the event offers a chance to see artisans at work, sample cuisine, and even learn a thing or two. As always there are activities for children as well. It runs in the last week of June up until the 4th of July, and this year, and the next two will feature the theme of Latin America/Caribbean culture.
Getting there:
The easiest way to get to the museums is by taking advantage of the great public transport Washington has to offer. The Smithsonian Institute museums around the National Mall can be accessed through a variety of Metro stops. The Blue/Orange line is the most feasible stop, and can be accessed through Metro Center if on the Red Line. It comes out right at the Mall. The Yellow/Green line comes out a few blocks from the National Gallery, which is around the Smithsonian buildings at the Navy/National Archives stop, and L’Enfant Plaza, which is also walking distance, runs Orange/Blue and Green/Yellow. Farecards can be purchased at your nearest Metro station.

Let me know if you have any other questions if you’re planning a trip – I’d be glad to be of further help

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Comments on this review

  • LR_17 published 11/08/2004
    This was a brilliant review and you've covered everything! I can't give this anything else but an E rating! Leila :)
  • jesi published 14/07/2004
    It's been a long time since I was here - but I remember part of it...&#8776;&#8776;&#8776;&#8776;{; -)-{{:::::|||||<
  • karen5416 published 01/07/2004
    This sounds brill, wouldnt mind a ride on the flight simulator and seeing the panda house : ] x
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