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The Smithsonian: Things to do in Washington DC
What can a tourist do in your city? That’s a question that I ask my students all the time, and like all great conversationalist they ask me the same question back. As someone who grew up in the Washington DC area I must confess that I don’t spend much time taking advantage of all of the culture and knowledge available to me from the plethora of activities that are literally in my backyard. If I’m being completely honest I’d have to tell you that until recently I hadn’t been to a single DC touristy hot spot in at least 15 years.
However, as I spend more and more time teaching students from all over the world and all over the country questions inevitably come up about my city and things a tourist can see and do here. As a local I do my boring local stuff, and over the next few weeks and months I’ll share some of that with you. But I wanted to take the time to tell you about the one place that I think you absolutely cannot miss out on. It’s something so important,
that if you can, I would recommend you set a couple of days aside for it. It’s not the White House, which is probably the number one thing people think they should visit. And you can if that’s your cup of tea. I went there as a kid, and to be honest the only thing I remember are the Easter egg hunts. They were fun and if you can get your kid on the list to do that, do it! My mom still has all of those eggs that I collected and they’re pretty cool. I recently found out that you can go to a Halloween Party at the White House and I can’t wait to have kids so I can go with them (for their enjoyment, not mine of course).
Anyway, I digress. The one place you have to visit whether you are a visitor or local is the Smithsonian. Why? Because there’s nothing like it in this country and perhaps the world. We don’t have the crazy beautiful art museums like the Louvre, we don’t have the ancient ruins of Athens, and we don’t have the antiquities of the British Museum. What we do have is the Smithsonian. In short the Smithsonian is a collection of 19 museums and a zoo. There’s something about the Smithsonian that is uniquely American and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s vast, it’s explorative, it’s knowledge driven, it’s inclusive, it’s about big ideas and concepts, it’s about understanding and accepting each other, it’s about celebrating being different, it’s about creating and it’s about pushing boundaries. I recently visited these museums again and over the next few weeks I’m going to share with you what I like most. Oh, and the best part is that you and I can visit this collection of museums as much as we want because it’s free!
What I always love about museums is the ability to always walk away with new knowledge and understanding as well as being blown away by someone’s talent. This is the essence of what the Smithsonian is about. Some of the museums will even come out to classrooms and teach students about their subject matter. The Smithsonian Museums are a living breathing historical and cultural book. They want you to think, they want you to learn, they want you to create, they want you to walk away with a deeper understanding of the world and the people in it.
There’s a lot to do at the Smithsonian. Before I get more in depth on my favorite places and pieces, here’s an overview.
The art museums at the Smithsonian focus not on just what’s pretty, but also on how the art affects the human and cultural experience of a specific area. Sticking to the Smithsonian’s inclusive nature, you’ll find an art museum for almost every culture. The African and American Art Museums focus on the experience of their namesake’s cultures told through the great story teller of art.The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery both focus on Asian Art. The Portrait gallery tells the American story through portraits of some of our most influential contributors. Some of the most unexpected, and in my opinion some of the most interesting art is housed in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which is a favorite of mine. Another favorite is the Renwick Gallery. These are not your typical European art museums full of Monet’s and enchanting Renaissance paintings, but there is a certain beauty to the defiance and disorder of the pieces in the Hirshhorn and there is something exciting and inspiring to the contemporary rule breaking sculptures of the Renwick gallery.
All of the history museums in the Smithsonian focus on detailing the American experience from the perspectives of different Americans. One can see this in the American Indian Museum and in the newly established National Museum of African American History and Culture. The entire American experience comes together in the National Museum of American History. We don’t have the centuries old rich history of Kings, Queens, and warring factions
like Europe, so this museum focuses on the contributions that America has made to the world. Think movies, music, science and technology. This makes it one of the most interesting museums for kids. Children actually get to perform experiments and invent things at Spark!Lab. The interaction makes this experience become so much more than just the traditional visit to the museum.
The Most Popular Places
By far the most popular museums of the Smithsonian are the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, and The National Zoo. The Natural History Museum is my overall favorite museum because it’s where I feel like I learn the most. It’s where you can see exhibits on early man and the development of humans, extinct and modern mammals, reptiles, sea creatures and more. Think Wooly Mammoths and dinosaurs! If you or someone in your family is into space and sky exploration, rockets, airplanes and things that fly, you’ll love the Air and Space Museum. This is the place for the curious kid or the space and planet enthusiast.