Exploring America's attic: a guide to the Smithsonian Institution

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What's over 165 years old, boasts 19 'arms' and 137 million dead and living objects? The Smithsonian Institution.

Quirky statistics aside, this place is no joke. Most travelers have heard of the Smithsonian before they visit Washington, DC. As far as popularity and fame go, it's DC's equivalent of the Big Apple's Statue of Liberty. Except that it's a very (very) different beast. The following tips will help you make the most of the Smithsonian – and believe us, it's worth the effort.

Think big

The Smithsonian is not one site; rather, it's a collection of museums and galleries – 19 in total – plus a zoo and research centers. Most of its museums and galleries are located in and around DC's metro area (10 are scattered across the National Mall). Two of them, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and National Museum of the American Indian, are based in New York City.

In 2013, more than 30 million people visited the Smithsonian's museums, galleries and zoo. One of the most visited museums is the Museum of Natural History, a must for children, which houses 126 million specimens.

A specimen inside the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Wesley Fryer / CC BY-SA 2.0.

A specimen inside the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Wesley Fryer / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Think different

The Lonely Planet guide to Washington is spot on in its description: 'If America was a quirky grandfather, the Smithsonian Institution would be his attic.' The volume and breadth of the contents of that 'attic' put it among the world's most extraordinary collections. We're talking about anything from an Air France Concorde to an insect zoo; a family of naked mole-rats to historic 'souvenirs' (chunks of large rocks and the like).

Among the most visited are the American icons, and seeing them is a rite of passage for many locals (foreign visitors love them too): the 45-carat Hope Diamond in the Museum of Natural History, the Wright brothers' plane in the Air & Space Museum, and the Star Spangled Banner in the Museum of American History (this year celebrating its 200th anniversary). In the same museum – and believed to be one of the most viewed items – are Dorothy's ruby red shoes, straight from The Wizard of Oz.

Even more peculiar is the institution's history. In 1829, British scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the US Government for, so he stipulated, the 'establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men'. Strangely, Smithson had never visited the US, so his motive is a mystery. But thanks to this extraordinary act, 165 years later the Smithsonian collections total nearly 137 million objects, of which, it's estimated, just 1% are on display at any given time.

How to tackle the museums

According to Becky Haberacker, spokesperson for the Smithsonian, the best thing to do is ask yourself 'what do I want to learn about today?' and take it from there. Then head to www.smithsonian.org to see what exhibitions are on.

You can also make a beeline for the institution's administrative offices and information center, handy for brochures and a cafe (which are a bit thin on the ground on the Mall). These offices are located in the Smithsonian's first building, the 'Castle' (popularly named for its turrets and 12th-century-style Gothic motifs), which was completed in 1855. A decade later, a fire destroyed the top floor, along with Smithson's papers and personal possessions, including his diary and mineral collection.

The Smithsonian Castle. Image by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo / CC BY 2.0.

The Smithsonian Castle. Image by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo / CC BY 2.0.

Non-planners and more spontaneous folk should choose something they like and home in on that; don't be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the collections. If frocks are your thing, head to the Museum of American History and drool over the gowns worn by Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama and more than 20 other 'First Ladies'. Fossil hunters must not miss the Museum of Natural History's paleobiology collection and its 4.26 million-plus fossil specimens, not to mention the museum's dinosaurs, a favorite among big and little kids alike. Or come face to face with past presidents in the National Portrait Gallery, a stunning building on the corner of 8th and F Streets. Modern art aficionados can get their 'cutting-edge' fill at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden and the National Portrait Gallery.

Freewheelers

For those who arrive and want to visit 'any old Smithsonian', the good news is that you can. Every museum is free (yes, seriously!) so you can enter and re-enter any museum or gallery as you wish. Be aware, though, that if you decide to stick to those on the National Mall alone, you will still have 3 miles to cover – by the time you walk between one museum and another, you might not care if you're looking at a rare Chinese bronze statue (Freer Gallery of Art) or the Apollo lunar landing module (Air & Space Museum). Hint: rent a bike for the day through the Capital Bikeshare program (capitalbikeshare.com). There are bicycle stations at various points along the Mall.

'Do' the zoo

Incredibly, in the 1880s, animals were kept behind the Castle on the Mall by a Smithsonian taxidermist-turned-conservationist. They were a hit among the public and in 1889 the zoo opened at its current site, in leafy Woodley Park (Rock Creek), a few stops from the city center on the metro. Head here on weekdays for crowd-free visits and up-close-and-personal viewings of nearly 2000 animals (of 400 species, for the scientifically minded). The current star is Bao Bao, the baby giant panda. It's also worth checking out the zoo's website (nationalzoo.si.edu) for daily programs including feeding demonstrations, keeper talks and animal training.

The Smithsonian in a nutshell

The Hall of Space Antiquities at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum. Image by F Delventhal. CC BY 2.0.

The Hall of Space Antiquities at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum. Image by F Delventhal. CC BY 2.0.

Be aware that the most popular spots – the Air & Space Museum, Museum of Natural History and Museum of American History – are always busy, particularly at weekends and during local school holidays (kids can't get enough of them).

For further information on each of the museums, check out the following links (the last two museums are in New York City):