DC Explorer: Smithsonian Institution 101

Smithsonian Castle – National Mall, Washington D.C.

The Smithsonian Institution is unique any other museum in the world! With over 19 museums (and counting), across Washington D.C. and New York City – The Smithsonian Institution is the LARGEST museum complex in the world.

As a museumgoer (lover of museums), stepping onto The National Mall in DC is entering museum heaven. The Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery flank both sides of The Mall with endless opportunities for museum adventures. It makes sense that Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum Franchise set their second installment in The Smithsonian – it is a wonderland of curiosity and wonder for all ages and backgrounds.

Sometimes museums get a bad rap for being ‘boring’ or just about things that happened a long time ago, but as a historian, I always challenge fellow travelers stretch their limits. History museums tell stories of real people and exciting events – real life soap operas to action thrillers, mysteries, romance and beyond. You can find it all in a history and art museum, if you just open your mind and be willing to ‘travel through time.’

What is unique about The Smithsonian is that it doesn’t just focus on one museum niche – the nineteen Smithsonian museums range from history to science to horticulture to art and a world-renowned zoological park. Add in their research institutions – everyone can fall in love with The Smithsonian.

Quick tips:

Important: The Smithsonian Museums are FREE but many require timed ticketing. This can be a bit daunting to navigate on the SI website (as of Dec. 2022). We were unable to visit the National Air and Space Museum due to lack of timed tickets. The tickets are free but fill up fast. I recommend both visiting the SI website and calling in advance so you don’t miss out on your must see museums.

I’ve been blessed to have visited DC countless times, given the close proximity to my home base of Raleigh NC. My parents both took me to the capital city several times a year to visit museums and historical sites across the region. I am so grateful for that opportunity. What I learned from many trips to DC is that you can see a lot in a few days – but you also need to give yourself grace.

  • It is okay if you don’t get to every Smithsonian site or DC attraction during your visit. It could take a lifetime to see all that DC and the Smithsonian Institution has to offer.
  • As a traveler, I find I enjoy trips best when I prioritize my trip goals or create a trip theme.
    • ex: I am an working on building my art business, and interested in touring art museums. I decided to take my three days in D.C. to focus solely on DC. art museums, including The Smithsonian Art Museums. This gave me time to really enjoy each museum, grab a bit to eat in the cafe and not feel rushed.
      • On my next trip I will focus on three other museums: Natural History, Museum of the American Indian and The National Air and Space Museum.
      • This is your trip – think about your unique interests? Are you interested in science – then the Natural History Museum is a must? Love art – then The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museums should be on your list. Want to dig into history: The National Museum of American History, Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of African American History and Culture should be on the itinerary.
  • In addition to picking museums and sites that speak to your passions, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and visit a Smithsonian site that isn’t as interesting or relevant to your day-to-day. This gives you a new perspective and you might fall in love with a new field of study – be it minerals at The Natural History Museum or aviation history at The National Air and Space Museum.

The Museums:

We’ll be exploring DC and The Smithsonian all month long, checking out each of the unique museums and sites the SI has to offer…

Here is a quick guide to the Smithsonian sites on The National Mall.

*not on National Mall, but in DC

New York City: The Smithsonian also has several outposts in NYC:

  • National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center
  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Fun fact: Congress passed legislation in late December 2020 to establish two new museums at the Smithsonian: the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. The Smithsonian is in early planning stages for both.

Smithsonian Quick Facts:

The Smithsonian is the largest museum institution in the world and has endless opportunities for adventure, here are a few facts to get you excited about your trip to The Smithsonian.

  • What’s in a name?
    • The Smithsonian was established with funds from James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
    • Smithson never visited the US and there is much speculation as to why he left his wealth to a foreign nation. Many believe that he saw the importance of the nation and wanted to leave his mark in ensuring a place for learning for all people in a country he knew was destined for greatness through democracy and innovation. At the time, the US did not have many museums and cultural learning hubs. No matter the reason – we all thank Mr. Smithson for his contributions.
  • The Smithsonian Institution opened on August 10, 1846. It’s first museum building – The Smithsonian Castle opened in 1855. It is not a true castle, but the gothic and romanesque styles resemble a European castle.
  • The Smithsonian Collections has over 155 million objects from art to science and beyond. 146 million pieces of the collection are scientific speciments at the National Museum of Natural History!
  • Only 1% of Smithsonian artifacts are on display – Anyone else have images of of the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark for the rest of the collection storage?
  • 22 million visitors tour the Smithsonian each year.
  • As of 2019, The National Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Zoo were the most popular attractions.
  • The Smithsonian Zoo is one of only three zoos in the US to have pandas. You can follow the adorabe DC pandas via pandacam here.
  • Speaking of bears, the original ‘Smokey the Bear’ lived at the National Zoo for twenty-six years.
  • Over 7,000 artists are represented in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
  • The collection was hidden in a secret climate controlled bunker in Luray VA (near the Luray Caverns) during World War II

Want to learn more? Keep following American Nomad as we continue to tour The Smithsonian and beyond!

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Purpose of American Nomad: To share my love of travel, history and museums with others.

About: American Nomad is written by Adele Lassiter, a travel enthusiast with a background in history, art and technology sales. In addition to running American Nomad, Adele is an artist and published author of cozy romances. Check out her cozy romance novel, Solitude Lake on Amazon (Adele Darcy)

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