Museums on the Mall: Smithsonian and Beyond

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 13 Guide

From the original flag that inspired our national anthem to the world’s most famous jewel to the breathtaking paintings of Leonardo and Raphael, Washington, D.C. is a rich hub of art and artifacts. Witness history unfold before your eyes.

People make more than 30 million visits per year to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums and galleries. Washington, D.C. is home to many of them, as well as other museums and galleries.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The National Museum of American History
• The National Museum of Natural History
• The National Museum of the American Indian
• The National Air and Space Museum
• Smithsonian art museums
• The National Gallery of Art

Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!

The 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 American Revolution to the present day. It includes one of the most important and beloved objects in the entire Smithsonian collection: the Star-Spangled Banner.

instructional gif for blue and green links in The Great Tours DC articles

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

Another huge draw at American History is the First Ladies exhibit. The main attractions here are more than two dozen gowns worn by America’s first ladies. The exhibit also includes objects recounting the first ladies’ personal lives, like letters and photographs. Throughout the museum are other objects relating to famous figures.

The National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of Natural History rotunda, Washington D.C. visitors walking around
The National Museum of Natural History is home to Smithsonian’s single most visited object: the The Hope Diamond.

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 such collection in the world.

It is also home to Smithsonian’s single most visited object: the Hope Diamond. At the museum, you can learn about the history and the chemistry of this unique gemstone, along with other astounding gems, mineral specimens and meteorites. There are also exhibits on topics like plate tectonics, seismology, volcanology, zoology, anthropology, and more.

James Smithson
The Smithsonian Institution is named for James Smithson, a wealthy English chemist and mineralogist. When Smithson died in 1829, he left his fortune to the people of the United States on the condition that it would be used to create an institution for, as his will put it, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The Smithsonian Institution is now the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, but its mission remains the same as it was when it set out to fulfill Smithson’s vision.

The National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian building, Washington D.C.
The National Museum of the American Indian opened on the south side of the National Mall in 2004.

Another innovative museum is the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the south side of the National 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.

The museum is surrounded by a simulated wetland planted with native plants, recalling the American landscape before first contact with Europe. These include 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 National Air and Space Museum

Interior of the National Air and Space Museum. Airplanes hanging from the ceiling
The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited Smithsonian museum.

Next door to the National Museum of the American Indian, you will find the most visited Smithsonian museum: the National Air and Space Museum. The museum is dedicated to the science of 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. The collections also include uniforms, models, engines, video footage, and more. In addition to the exhibit galleries, there is a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and an observatory where visitors can safely view the sun in the middle of the day.

Because of its enormous collection, it was almost inevitable that this museum would eventually run out of display space. In 2003, the museum opened an annex called the Udvar‑Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It is about 30 miles from downtown DC, but it includes many incredible objects, including the space shuttle Discovery.

Smithsonian Art Museums

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Art lovers will find lots to enjoy on the National Mall as well. In terms of Smithsonian museums, the National Mall features the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both featuring Asian art.

Also on the National Mall are the National Museum of African Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Some of Smithsonian’s art museums are a short walk north of the National Mall. For example, near the White House is the Renwick Gallery. The Renwick’s collections include painting, drawing, sculptures, photography, crafts, and decorative arts.

A few blocks east of Renwick, almost directly north of the Natural History Museum, are the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. They are 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 portraits of the people who shaped it. The museum’s most famous collection is the only complete set of American presidential portraits outside the White House. The museum also features portraits of other important American figures, such as the abolitionists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass.

The National Gallery of Art

West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Visitors walking up steps
The National Gallery of Art is one of the largest and most visited art museums in the world.

Not every museum in D.C. is part of the Smithsonian Institution. For example, consider one of the largest and most visited art museums in the world: the National Gallery of Art. Located on the north side of the mall, across from National Air and Space Museum, it draws more than 5 million visitors annually.

The National Gallery of Art consists of three parts: the East Building, the West Building, and the Sculpture Garden. The West Building houses art from the medieval period to the late 19th century, while the East Building is home to 20th-century and contemporary art.

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 exhibits and special installations. In the Sculpture Garden, the central fountain is converted to an ice rink each winter, so visitors can enjoy the garden year-round.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
First Ladies Exhibit
National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of the American Indian
The National Air and Space Museum
National Mall
The National Gallery Of Art

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