The Smithsonian has always been kind of mythic for me. Something that I had always wanted to see, but never really thought that I would. Even thought I’ve been getting The Smithsonian Magazine (which I totally recommend) for a few years now, I hadn’t really realized that it wasn’t a museum. The Smithsonian Institution consists of 19 museums/galleries, 9 research centres AND a zoo in Washington, DC, as well as some additional facilities elsewhere, and has 168 Smithsonian affiliate museums.
It was established in 1846, with funds from British Scientist James Smithson, who had never actually been to the United States. He had left his estate to the United Sates to found, “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The Smithsonian Institution is now the largest museum and research complex in the world.
The institution was originally housed in what is now the Smithsonian Castle located along the National Mall. The Castle now contains the Smithsonian Visitor Centre with information about all of the different Smithsonian Museums. It would be a great place to start when you get to Washington and is one of the things that I left wishing we had managed to make time for. We only visited a fraction of the Smithsonian Museums on our trip – 5 to be exact. I’ve already reviewed 3 of them, so I’ll just mention them briefly before moving on to the 2 I haven’t mentioned before.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
This was the museum that I had always wanted to go to. It’s perfect for kids – with exhibits featuring dinosaurs, insects, butterflies, mamamals, giant squid, rocks and minerals and much much more, you’d be hard pressed to find a kid who didn’t love something at this museum. You may also be interested in seeing my full review of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums
The Air and Space Museums were two of the most impressive places we visited while we were in Washington. The Air and Space Museum along the National Mall is full aviation history that you aren’t going to find any where else. They have the original Wright Flyer, the Mercury spacecraft in which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, a real lunar module (that didn’t go to the moon), the Apollo 11 capsule that brought the first astronaughts back from the moon and so much more! The exhibits are well displayed with lots of interactive features and things you can touch. And you can even touch a piece of the moon!
The Steven. F. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum is located near the Dulles Airport (one of the three airports that serve Washington, DC – 45 minutes from downtown Washington). It’s definitely worth the trip if you have a big aviation fan in your family or if you are flying in or out of Dulles. The museum is less polished, than it’s downtown counterpart, but it’s inventory is stunning. The main attractions are SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle Discovery. You may also be interested in seeing my full review of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museums).
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Address: National Mall – Washington, DC
Gordie’s Review (3.5 years): “The art is made of funny things”
Day Pass Cost: Free!
Food Services: None.
Age Range: 5+.
Stay Length: Probably only an hour or two if you’re going with kids.
Worth the Trip?: This would be a great pick if you were looking to introduce your kids to art.
Overall: The Hirshhorn is features contemporary art – you may not like the art that is displayed, but it’s hard to accuse it of being boring. We had a little extra time one afternoon so we stopped by. The museum itself is a work of art, it’s shaped like a doughnut and raised off the ground. Outside the Museum is a sunken Sculpture Garden.
We didn’t see much of the garden, but I really liked this sculpture. There is something perfect about a rubber stamp sculpture in Washington, DC.
The feature exhibit while we were there was ‘Ai Weiwei: According to What?’. Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist whose work at this exhibit included sculpture, photography, installation, video and audio work. Not all of it made a lot of sense to me (and I didn’t have a lot of time to figure it out going through with two little kids) but some of it was really beautiful and other works were really interesting.
This installation work featuring the animals of the zodiac was outside the museum in the centre court yard.
The exhibit was fun to take Gordie to because the art was made up of so many different kind of materials. He enjoyed figuring out what the art was made of. He was a little younger than I would probably recommend the museum for, especially if your kid may be a little impulsive – there were a lot of things that kids may want to touch that they are not allowed to.
The hole in the log, made of wood reclaimed from destroyed temples, is in the shape of China.
This artwork was composed of a number of rectangular boxes. It wasn’t really much to look at, from a distance, but if you look through the holes you can see all the phases of the moon. Really cool.
The art in the front is a pile of crabs, the one in the back is a pile of rebar.
This was one of Gordie’s favorite sculptures.
Smithsonian National American History Museum
Address: National Mall – Washington, DC
Gordie’s Review (3.5 years): “I liked the train”
Day Pass Cost: Free!
Food Services: There is a Cafe and a Cafeteria serving sandwiches, American barbeques, soups, salad bar, burgers, pizza and desserts.
Age Range: 5+.
Stay Length: A couple hours to half a day depending on how many exhibits you want to see.
Worth the Trip?: Maybe. It has some cool pieces and some exhibits you’re not going to see any where else. It’s also undergoing significant construction at the moment.
Overall: The American History Museum wasn’t on our must see list either, but after our failed walk to the Lincoln Memorial (it was so windy and cold!) we decided to pick a few exhibits to see there instead. As compared to the other Smithsonian museums that we visited, this one felt more set up for school groups than the general public. The museum was undergoing renovations and we only had a couple of hours so we only saw a handful of the museum’s exhibits. Many of the exhibits pose questions to try to get you to think about a topic and consider the societal and cultural impacts of what’s being displayed.
The most impressive was seeing the Star-Spangled Banner Flag. This is the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 inspiring Francis Scott Key to write what later became the US national anthem. It’s very fragile and no photos are permitted.
The next exhibit we went to see was FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, I thought it was a really interesting topic but it was primarily presented with text and graphics so it didn’t hold my son’s attention for very long.
I thought it was really cool to see Julia Child’s kitchen though.
If you are going to the museum with younger kids, the America on the Move exhibit is probably a good pick because there’s lots to look at that would be of interest to them. Gordie and my husband really liked the section on ships.
The Dolls’ House is also usually a hit with kids.
The last exhibit we saw was American Stories exhibit uses different artifacts to examine the interplay between objects and stories, culture, politics, and economics, science and technology have shaped the United States. This exhibit poses many questions and asks you to reflect more than presenting information like in a more typical history exhibit. They have some really interesting pieces in this exhibit like Kermit the Frog and the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
Do you have a favorite Smithsonian Museum? Which one would you like to take your kids to?