Big City Tales

Strategy is Key to Visiting the Smithsonian Institution | July 31, 2018

As the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, includes 17 local museums and galleries, numerous public gardens, and a zoo. The museums are primarily (and conveniently!) located along the National Mall and collectively contain over 150 million artifacts celebrating history, science, art and culture. There’s clearly a lot to see so having a strategy in place is key to making the most of visiting this much lauded and celebrated American treasure. A good place to start is at the Smithsonian Institution Building, referred to as ‘The Castle’.

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The Castle

In addition to housing administrative offices, the Castle is the primary visitor center and provides a full overview of the Smithsonian, including background information about James Smithson, the institute’s founding donor, and highlights from each of the individual museum permanent collections. Even for those planning an extended stay in DC, chances are that seeing all facets of the Smithsonian is not realistic so spending time wandering around the Castle’s mini-exhibits is advisable, as well as consulting with staff to find out if there are any current special exhibitions. Visitors are also welcome to explore the Castle’s unique 19th century architecture and interior design before heading out to other venues.

An interesting tidbit about James Smithson is that he was a British scientist who never actually visited the United States during his lifetime. Faced with the prospect of possibly having no living heirs to pass along his fortune to, in his will Smithson bequeathed his estate to the country with the express instructions “to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” So, thanks to the foresight of a Brit, the “nation’s attic” came to be in 1846 and has amazed and delighted visitors ever since with its vast and eclectic holdings.

American History Museum

For obvious reasons, one of the most popular Smithsonian museums is the National Museum of American History that explores the origins of the country dating back to colonial times. As no trip to the nation’s capital would be complete without a quick history lesson, this museum should be at the top of your “Smithsonian must see” list.

Among the many exhibits visitors can learn about the creation of the U.S. Constitution and read its text, review the main events and figures of the Civil War and other battles fought in the name of national freedom, revel in the glory of the flag and national anthem, admire first lady inauguration gowns, and enjoy some pop culture in the form of various film and television artifacts.

Founding Fathers to Civil War

From the War of Independence to the Wars of Expansion and the Civil War, America’s early existence was marked by some intense military conflicts that served to define its borders and carve out its collective values. The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit contains a plethora of incredible and significant artifacts such as George Washington’s uniform, battlefield relics from Gettysburg, and the chairs that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant used during the Civil War surrender ceremony.

Star-Spangled Banner

Patriotism abounds in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit that tells the story of how the iconic red, white and blue color scheme of the American flag came to be, and also delves into the inspiration behind the words of the country’s national anthem, penned by Francis Scott Key.

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The First Ladies

It’s not just the work of the founding fathers on display at the American History Museum, the inaugural fashions of the first ladies are also showcased. Michelle Obama’s gown and shoes from 2009 feature prominently in the exhibit along with those donned by Martha Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and others. The First Ladies exhibit also highlights the important work undertaken by many of these enterprising wives in support of their respective husbands’ administrations.

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The Joy of Cooking a la Julia Child

Before the rise of the Food Network and proliferation of TV chef personalities like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten and others, Julia Child ruled the small screen for 40 years and dazzled audiences with her command of French cuisine. From crepes to souffles, bouillabaisse to boeuf bourguignon, Julia welcomed viewers directly into her home kitchen based in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she and her guests cooked and laughed in equal measure. Julia definitely made cooking fun and her trademark send-off of ‘Bon Appetit!‘ is fittingly part of the entryway into the Julia Child’s Kitchen exhibit that features her copper pan collection and other kitchenware.


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