A Brief Tour of the Smithsonian Institution

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR RICHARD KURIN

How do you preserve the memories of an entire nation? How do you represent the events, ideas, and achievements that have shaped its history, and the people behind them? How do you identify and preserve its greatest treasures? And how do you do all this in a way that will illuminate the past and inspire the future? Meet the Washington, D.C. institution behind it all.

image of the Smithsonian Institute castle in Washington, D.C.

People make more than 30 million visits per year to the Smithsonian’s museums and galleries. About seven million people participate in educational programs and more than a 150 million visit its websites. Millions more see Smithsonian traveling exhibitions across the United States, read Smithsonian magazine, watch the Smithsonian Channel, listen to Smithsonian Folkways records.

The Smithsonian is now the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, but its mission remains the same as it was when we set out to fulfill James Smithson’s vision: to increase and diffuse knowledge across the planet.

Here are some of its many must-see museums.

The National Museum of American History

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History houses about 1.8 million objects relating to the history of the United States, from before the Revolution to the present day. It originally opened in 1964, and the building has been undergoing a complete overhaul, section by section, since 2006. Renovations to the core of the building were completed in 2008 and included a new home for one of the most important and beloved objects in the entire Smithsonian collection: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This is the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. It is the flag that Francis Scott Key saw “in dawn’s early light” while he was held captive on a British Navy vessel in Baltimore Harbor. The sight of that flag, still flying after a full night of bombardment by British naval forces, inspired Key to write the poem that became the words to America’s national anthem.

Although that flag survived the battle, now, more than 200 years later, the fabric is incredibly fragile. So, in 1998, the Smithsonian undertook a project to preserve what remained of the flag and installed it in a new, state-of-the-art, climate-controlled gallery. As you go through the darkened exhibition, you come around a corner into the simulated “dawn’s early light” to see the 40-foot flag displayed on an angled gantry. When I look at this flag, I literally get goose bumps. It is an incredibly inspiring object, an icon of our nation’s harsh birth and its survival.

Another huge draw at the National Museum of American History is the First Ladies exhibit. The main attraction here is the more than two dozen gowns worn by America’s first ladies. The oldest gown belonged to Martha Washington; the newest ones belonged to Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump. But the exhibit contains more than just clothing. It contains objects recounting the first ladies’ personal lives, like letters and photographs, as well as objects related to their diplomatic duties as White House hostess, such as the china used for state occasions. The exhibition reflects not only the changing tastes and fashions of the past 250 years but also the unique and ever-changing role the presidents’ spouses have played throughout our history.

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Throughout the museum, you will find more objects relating to famous figures: like Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Prince’s “Yellow Cloud” guitar. But you will also encounter objects from the lives of ordinary Americans, from military uniforms and medical devices to automobiles, computers, and currency.

The National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Next door to the National Museum of American History is another Smithsonian museum: the National Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1910, today this museum holds more than 140 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. It is the largest collection in the world, by far. It’s home to the Smithsonian’s single, most visited object: the Hope Diamond.

The Hope Diamond is the centerpiece of the Harry Winston Gallery and Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. And it has been dazzling viewers since it arrived at the museum in 1958. At the museum, you can learn about the history and the chemistry of this unique gemstone, along with other astounding gems, mineral specimens, meteorites large and small, as well as exhibits on topics like plate tectonics, seismology, volcanology, and other important research in planetary science.

There are other exhibitions devoted to zoology; anthropology; paleontology; oceanography; and much, much more, but I want to draw your attention to one of the most surprising exhibitions at the museum, called “Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution.” This exhibition is dedicated to showing how interactions between species in an ecosystem can cause each species to adapt and evolve. The star attraction at this exhibition is of course the Butterfly Pavilion, where you can take a stroll among the living butterflies and plants.

This isn’t the only living exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. In the Orkin Insect Zoo, visitors can observe and interact with live insects. Or if living creepy-crawlies aren’t your thing, maybe you’d like to hang out with the dead. In the FossiLab, you can watch the museum’s researchers preparing new fossil specimens for study and exhibition. Or you can meet a mummy in the exhibition on eternal life in Ancient Egypt and study the process of mummification.

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The National Museum of the American Indian

Another innovative museum is the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the south side of the Mall in 2004. Its mission is to advance the knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present, and future—and to support the continuity of Native cultures. It represents Native peoples from the Arctic Circle in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. And like all of the D.C. museums, it sponsors public education programs, as well as scholarly research.

One of the most interesting things about the museum is its building and grounds, which are in a way are exhibits onto themselves. The museum is surrounded by a simulated wetland planted with native plants, recalling the American landscape before first contact with Europeans. Displayed are traditional crops that were once unique to the Americas but now supply about 60 percent of the world’s diet—foods like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and chocolate.

The building is designed to suggest natural windswept stone. It is aligned to the cardinal directions, with a prism window on the south side aligned so that at noon on the summer solstice it casts a spectacular light show into the Potomac Atrium. This atrium is not only the museum entrance, but also an open event space that serves as a living, ever-changing part of the museum. Above the atrium, a glass dome lets in light from the sky.

The museum’s café, called Mitsitam, is also part of the learning experience. It has a seasonal menu inspired by native cuisines from five regions: the Great Plains, Northern Woodlands, Pacific Northwest, Mesoamerica, and South America. By the way, Mitsitam means “Let’s eat!” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples.

The National Air and Space Museum

Next door to the National Museum of the American Indian, you will find the most visited Smithsonian museum, one that typically attracts between seven to nine million visitors per year: the National Air and Space Museum.

As the name implies, the museum is dedicated to the science of flight: both air and space travel and the research and discoveries that made them possible. The collections include more than 60,000 objects, including some of the world’s most famous aircraft from the invention of flight to the present day. But the collections also include uniforms, models, engines, video footage, and lots more. In addition to the exhibition galleries, there is a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and an observatory where visitors can safely view the sun in the middle of the day.

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Upstairs in the Exploring the Planets exhibit you’ll find examples of the orbiters, landers, and rovers we’ve used to explore other bodies in our solar system. One of these is the prototype for the groundbreaking Curiosity rover. This is a full-scale model of the vehicle that landed on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity is still hard at work on Mars, exploring the red planet, taking soil samples, atmospheric readings, and photographs, and even an occasional selfie. Its mission is to determine whether or not Mars can be made habitable for human beings. And indeed, whether or not, there’s already life on Mars.

Upstairs from the Milestones Hall, you will find the 1903 Wright Flyer. This vehicle’s 12-second flight on December 17, 1903 changed our world forever, and in a way, it’s the very reason this museum exists. The Wright brothers achieved the first propelled man-flight in history, and opened up the aviation age. They did this because they essentially invented and developed the science of aeronautical engineering, discovering and mastering principles that are still in use today. The exhibits around the Flyer put their achievements into context.

The National Portrait Gallery

Some of the Smithsonian’s art museums are a short walk north of the National Mall. For example, near the White House, you’ll find the Renwick Gallery. The Renwick’s collections include not only painting, drawing, and sculpture, but also photography, crafts, and decorative arts.

A few blocks east of the Renwick, almost directly north of the National Museum of Natural History, are the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, housed in the Reynolds Center at the historic, old Patent Office Building.

Opened in 1968, the National Portrait Gallery seeks to chronicle American history through the portraits of the people who shaped it. The museum’s most famous collection is the only complete set of American presidential portraits outside of the White House, including the Gilbert Stuart “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, which set the tone for presidential portraiture for the next two centuries.

The Portrait Gallery goes beyond presidents, of course. Some of the most interesting images in the collection are the early photographs known as daguerreotypes, a type of photo that flourished in the 1840s and 1850s. As you would expect, given the period, you will find images of important figures from the abolitionist movement, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. But there are also portraits of other cultural icons, like the writer Henry David Thoreau; the operatic soprano Jenny Lind; and one image that is believed to be a very young Jesse James, posing with his mom and his sister.

The National Gallery of Art

Smithsonian National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art is located on the north side of the Mall, across from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It draws more than five million visitors annually. I say “museum,” but the National Gallery consists of three parts: the East Building, the West Building, and the Sculpture Garden. The museum was the brainchild of Andrew W. Mellon, a Pennsylvania banker and former secretary of the treasury.

The West Building opened in 1941. The East Building, designed by famed modern architect I. M. Pei, opened in 1978, and the sculpture garden was added in 1999. The West Building houses art from the medieval period to the 19th century, while the East building is home to 20th century and contemporary art. And knowing that, you don’t need a compass to know which is East and which is West; just look at their exteriors.

The collections include examples from some of the most celebrated artists in history, including Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Calder. The museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibitions and special installations. And while you may not consider winter to be “sculpture garden” weather, the central fountain is converted to an ice rink each winter, usually from December to March, so that you can enjoy the garden year around.

This article is from the series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.