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Smithsonian museums guide

Use our ultimate guide to the Washington, DC museums on offer from the Smithsonian smorgasbord to get thoroughly institutionalized for free

Smithsonian museums guide

National Museum of Natural History

The gem at the heart of the Museum of Natural History is a state-of-the-art IMAX cinema and an 80,000sq ft brushed steel and granite Discovery Center housing a cafeteria and exhibition space. The rotunda, too, is an impressive structure, dominated by an eight-ton African elephant. In 2003, the museum’s restored west wing opened its glistening, 25,000sq ft Kenneth E Behring Hall of Mammals, featuring interactive displays alongside 274 taxidermied animals striking dramatic poses. 

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National Museum of the American Indian

Dedicated to America’s colonised and historically abused indigenous people, the National Museum of the American Indian is the most recent addition to the Mall’s museum ring—a status it will lose once the National Museum of African American History Culture opens. The structure was designed by a Native American team; the building is as much a part of the message as the exhibits. The details are extraordinary: dramatic, Kasota limestone-clad undulating walls resemble a wind-carved mesa; the museum’s main entrance plaza plots the star configurations on 28 November 1989, the date that federal legislation was introduced to create the museum; fountains enliven outdoor walkways. 

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National Museum of American History

The continuing transformation of the National Museum of American History led to the closing of the west wing for renovation in 2012—it’s scheduled to reopen in 2015. A first-stage renovation (completed 2008) created a central atrium, a grand staircase, ten-foot artifact walls on the first and second floors, as well as a dedicated Star-Spangled Banner gallery. Floors are organized around loose themes, allowing a huge diversity of exhibits to tell American stories in a populist, entertaining and informative manner. 

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National Air & Space Museum

Air & Space tops visitors’ to-do list, year in, year out. The imposing Tennessee marble modernist block, by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, incorporates three skylit, double-height galleries, which house missiles, aircraft and space stations. In the central Milestones of Flight hall, towering US Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles stand next to the popular moon rock station, where visitors can stroke a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The 1903 Wright Flyer—the first piloted craft to maintain controlled, sustained flight (if only for a few seconds)—and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis are both suspended here. Permanent exhibitions in the museum detail the history of jet aviation, space travel and satellite communications. 

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Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center (National Air & Space Museum annex)

The impressive annex to the National Air and Space Museum is home to hordes of space and aviation artifacts, including a shrine to the space shuttle Discovery, which has a hangar just about all to itself—alongside a Concorde supersonic passenger jet and the restored Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. It’s perhaps more for the adult aviation enthusiast than its counterpart on the Naitonal Mall—but kids will still get a kick out of the sheer spectacle of the exhibits on display here.

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National Postal Museum

Audio-visual and interactive presentations in this family-friendly museum detail the invention and history of stamps, the postal service, the role of letters as a means of communication (including letters to and from soldiers during wartime), and stamp collecting. The frequent special exhibitions aren’t likely to bowl over serious philatelists. They should head to the museum’s huge library and research center.

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National Museum of African Art

This museum’s entrance pavilion, designed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, lies across the amazing Enid Haupt Garden from its twin, the Sackler. The primary focus of the collection, which opened in 1987, is ancient and contemporary work from sub-Saharan Africa. The museum offers a changing selection of "highlights", drawing viewers into different aspects of African art and—by extension—culture. 

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Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery features people who played a role in the shaping of the nation and its culture, with figures as diverse as Pocahontas and Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the US Girl Scouts. Presidents are gathered in the America’s Presidents section on the second floor. Among the portraits is Gilbert Stuart’s seminal "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington. Other paintings feature the Bushes, father and son, in separate portraits side by side. A TV plays excerpts from epoch-making presidential speeches, Kennedy’s "ask not what your country can do for you", and Reagan’s "Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall" among them. 

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Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This mansarded building, modeled on the Louvre, was built across from the White House in 1859 by architect James Renwick to house the art collection of financier and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran. It changed hands several times before opening in 1972 as the Smithsonian’s craft museum, and it remains a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition of American crafts from the 19th century to the present often showcases striking work. Major works by well-established craftsmen and -women, including Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Robert Ebendorf, David Ellsworth, Sheila Hicks, Karen LaMonte, Beth Lipman, Sam Maloof and Albert Paley, are featured. Jewelry, furniture, and wood art make up a significant part of the collection. 

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Freer Gallery of Art

When Detroit business magnate Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) began collecting the works of American painter James McNeill Whistler in the 1880s, the artist encouraged him also to collect Asian art while on his travels to the Middle and Far East. Freer did so, and he eventually amassed Neolithic Chinese pottery, Japanese screens and Hindu temple sculpture, along with works by 19th-century American painters—which included over 1,300 works by Whistler. A room interior, the Peacock Room, painted by Whistler in 1876-77, is probably the gallery’s best-known piece. 

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