The 19 museums and galleries of the Smithsonian Institution collectively exhibit 150 million artifacts.
James Smithson (1765-1829) never once visited the United States of America. Born in France the illegitimate son of Britain’s Duke of Northumberland, he was educated in England and became a chemist and mineralogist. Smithson died in 1829 and was buried in Italy. In 1905, his remains were moved to Washington DC and reinterred in a marble crypt at the Smithsonian Castle.
When Smithson died he bequeathed his considerable fortune to the USA and requested that the United States establish, in Washington DC specifically, “under the name of The Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, The Smithsonian Institution was officially created.
Nearly 200 years later the Institution has become an important museum, education and research complex. There are 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries as well as the Smithsonian National Zoo. The foundation’s original mission has been tweeked only slightly to “shape the future by preserving heritage, discover new knowledge and share resources with the world.”
The red sandstone Smithsonian Castle, pictured above as the header photo, was designed by James Renwick and was completed in 1855.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
We opted to make the National Museum of American History our first stop during our 2 week stay in DC. The artifacts on display span from early colonial life through to present time. With 3 million objects in the collection we found this comprehensive museum a tad overwhelming. Smaller displays especially were often multi-layered making it a challenge to clearly view and read the details.
Notwithstanding, this museum represents American history well. The antique drafting set below, for example, caught our attention. These invaluable tools would have been advantageous in mapping this country.
We saw the 1831 John Bull steam locomotive; a part of the famous Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter; dozens of arts, cultural, entertainment, family, immigration, music, politics, science and sports artifacts.
On one floor was a colonial house (circa 1710/1760), on another floor the Gunboat Philadelphia – the oldest surviving American fighting vessel. Built in 1776, along with 8 other vessels, this group of sister-ships, historians consider “the first American Navy.”
The same year the 54′ Philadelphia was built, she was sunk in Lake Champlain during a naval battle with the British. Salvaged in 1935, the museum acquired the gunboat in 1964 as well as the 24-pound ball that had sank it a century and a half earlier.
Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (closed for renovations during our stay) and the Freer Gallery of Art together form the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian art.
Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) began his collection of Asian art in 1887 and in 1904 he offered his 7,500 piece collection to the Smithsonian Institution. At that time, however, the Smithsonian maintained a scientific focus and hesitated to accept Freer’s gift. It wasn’t until President Theodore Roosevelt expressed interest in the collection that the gift was accepted. The gallery opened to the public 4 years after Freer’s death. It was the first museum of the Smithsonian that was dedicated to fine arts.
The Freer Gallery’s collection spans 6,000 years and although most originate from Asia, we did see numerous 19th century American artworks. Today the gallery’s acquisitions have grown to more than 25,000 objects that have been sourced primarily from China, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey.
Owning such a large number of pieces, this relatively small gallery routinely rotates it’s collection.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Flight history in DC may have its roots in the very location of the National Air and Space Museum.
A “T.S.C. Lowe’s Observation Flight” sign we discovered discreetly placed outside the museum states, that in the summer of 1861 Thaddeus Lowe “made a tethered observation flight with his gas-filled balloon, Enterprise, from a spot on the National Mall in front of where the National Air and Space Museum now stands. During this flight, he sent the first telegram ever dispatched from the air to President Lincoln in the White House, describing what could be seen from an altitude of 500 feet. The ascent marked the beginning of an observation balloon corps for the U.S. Army, the first American military aeronautical unit and the birth of aerial reconnaissance in the United States.”
In 1876 the Institute’s first collection of flight related artifacts began with 20 kites donated by the Chinese Imperial Commission. By the end of WWI the Smithsonian had collected a significant number of important examples of aircraft. Following WWII the collection had grown too large for any one space to house.
In 1916 the Smithsonian Institution funded early experiments in rocket research. The next half a century saw such a development in rocketry and spaceflight that in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law expanding the museum’s name to the National Air and Space Museum.
The current building opened in 1976 during America’s bicentennial year. Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins (1930-2021) was Director of the Museum from 1971-1978.
What started as a group of 20 kites has grown to nearly 60,000 objects and the National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world. Although much of the museum was closed during our visit, we did learn about and see a few exciting historical objects.
There is a second larger building, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located in Virginia that we hope to visit in the future and that museum apparently houses many of the larger rockets, missiles, satellites and spacecraft.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
It took a century of persistence and planning between conception and fruition of a National Museum of African American History and Culture. Located on the Washington Mall next to the Washington Monument, President Barack Obama led the museum’s official opening ceremony in 2016.
The architects incorporated elements from Africa and the USA into the building’s strikingly unique design. The three-tiered, façade was inspired by a Yoruban craftsman and the metal lattice that wraps the entire building is reminiscent of the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved and free African Americans.
Like all foundations operated by the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of African American History and Culture is much more than a brilliant gallery containing 40,000 artifacts. This museum also supports educational programs, provides internships, fellowships, grants and scholarships.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was a fascinating woman. She was widely known and well-respected during her lifetime and became a true American icon after her death.
Born into slavery as Araminta “Minty” Ross, Harriet Tubman was a renowned abolitionist and political activist. In her mid 20’s she escaped, changed her name and headed to Philadelphia – a journey of nearly 90 miles (145 km) that could take between 1 to 3 weeks on foot, especially while evading pursuers. She worked and saved her money and it wasn’t long before she returned to the plantation and began rescuing small groups of family and relatives, leading them north to freedom.
The informal but well-organized Underground Railroad system was composed of free and enslaved blacks, white abolitionists and other activists who would provide aid and safe passage north for travelers seeking freedom. Using the Underground Railroad, she is credited with organizing and aiding hundreds of travelers escaping to safety. Rescuers called her “Moses” and years later, she commented: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
In 1859 she helped plan a slave revolt and recruited supporters for John Brown’s infamous raid of the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
She served the Union Army as an armed scout and spy. In early 1863 she was the first woman to lead an armed assault that successfully liberated 750 slaves.
1865 saw the end of the Civil War, but the ideals of gender and racial equality inspired Harriet to become a community activist, humanitarian and suffragist. She worked with local and national suffrage conventions for nearly 40 years.
In 1869 Sarah Hopkins Bradford published an authorized biography entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. In 1886 Bradford released a re-written volume, called Harriet, the Moses of her People. Harriet Tubman was indeed the ‘Joan of Arc’ of her time.
The current administration has apparently resumed an earlier effort to add Harriet Tubman’s portrait to the front of the US $20 bill.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
The art collection of the National Museum of African Art includes 12,000 beautiful works of traditional and contemporary African art.
In the 1950s, while living in Germany, Warren M. Robbins, an American Foreign Service officer, began collecting African figures, masks, books and textiles. When he returned to the US he purchased a house on Capitol Hill and in 1964 formally opened the Museum of African Art. His collection continued to grow and eventually occupied nine townhouses and more than a dozen other properties near the Supreme Court Building. (The neighborhood we stayed in during our visit.) In 1979 Robbins’ collection joined the Smithsonian and in 1987 moved into its current location.
The photo below is a room-size sculpture that at first glance reminded us of a giant tire. It was made from jerrycans and it was impressive. The West-African artist, Romuald Hazoumè, (1962-) who was born in and works in Porto-Novo, Benin, named it Rainbow Serpent, (Dan-Ayido-Houedo) because the rainbow serpent swallowing its tail is a symbol connected to fertility, prosperity and the cycle of life for the Fon and Yoruba peoples of Benin and Nigeria.
Although one of the Smithsonian’s smaller museums, there are astonishing objects from across all of Africa and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
The Museum of the American Indian was established in 1916, joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1989 and opened on the National Mall in 2004. Focused on the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, we felt there were a significant number of outstanding exhibits from Canadian and South American native peoples and would have liked to have seen more collections from the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the USA.
The NMAI’s extensive 825,000 piece collection of Native American arts and artifacts represent 1,200 indigenous cultures and 12,000 years of history.
The collections are divided by area: Amazon; Andes; Arctic/Subarctic; California/Great Basin; Contemporary Art; Mesoamerican/Caribbean; Northwest Coast; Patagonia; Plains/Plateau; and Woodlands.
We were crestfallen the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe was closed. Pre-Covid, it apparently served regional foods from the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso-America and the Great Plains and it may have been interesting to taste test.
The sand-colored exterior architecture of the museum, which covers 3 city blocks, reminded us of the Pueblo Indians adobe structures in the American Southwest.
After leaving the museum we walked through the National Native American Veterans Memorial, titled Warriors’ Circle of Honor. It opened in 2020 and honors American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian veterans.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is the most visited natural history museum in the world and we had initially decided against visiting it. How many old bones, insects, pottery, fragments, et cetera does one want to view anyway? In our 3½ years of full time travel we have toured and enjoyed more than a few natural history museums.
As we had visited every one of the 22 sites on our original wishlist for Washington DC, on our final day we decided to visit the highly rated Smithsonian Natural History Museum. It was perhaps the best decision of our visit; what a truly exceptional museum!
Founded in 1846 and originally housed in the Smithsonian Castle, the museum opened in its current location in 1910. The collection contains 146 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites, human remains and artifacts. There are an amazing 30 million insects, 4.5 million plants, 7 million fish, over 580,000 amphibians and reptiles, 1 million specimens of birds, reptiles and mammals and much, much more. Although not on display…..there are 185 natural history scientists that work at the museum.
In 1958 American jeweler Harry Winston (1896-1978) donated one of the Smithsonian’s most prized gems, the Hope Diamond. It is a 45.52 carat, rare blue diamond surrounded by 16 white diamonds.
We also saw one of the finest star sapphires, the 330 carat Star of Asia. It was acquired in 1961 from Martin Leo Ehrmann, (1904-1972) a premier dealer in museum-quality minerals. We saw the violet-blue gem, the Star of Bombay, that was given to actress Mary Pickford by her movie star husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
We were astonished to see this incredible gem and mineral collection. There are more than 15,000 individual gems, 350,000 minerals, 300,000 samples of rock and ore as well as 45,000 meteorite specimens.
We also walked through and enjoyed these fascinating natural history collections.
The Hall of Bones was, for us, perhaps the most striking and memorable of all the exhibitions. The exhibit displayed dozens of real and cast vertebrate skeletons that were ‘posed’ in their natural habitats.
The Hall of Human Origins has 76 human skulls of different species and from various geological times. One of the oldest species is a Homo heidelbergensis, which lived 200,000-700,000 years ago.
The Dinosaurs Hall of Paleobiology consists of 46 “complete and important specimens” of dinosaurs. The centerpiece, a 35-foot (11 m) long tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, dominates dinosaur hall.
The Hall of Mammals has the largest collection of vertebrate specimens in the world and are displayed like works of art.
Ocean Hall includes marine specimens and models drawn from the over 80 million specimens in the museum’s total collection. The Ocean Portal works closely with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Geographic, NOAA and a dozen more collaborating organizations.
The Insect Zoo and Butterly Hall were closed during our visit. As in Europe during the pandemic, most museums had closed off extensive exhibits, rooms, halls and whole floors.
In early 2018 we began traveling full time through Europe and we have visited more than a hundred museums and galleries. However, what we witnessed in the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC was inspirational. Are you aware that admission is free to any Smithsonian in DC? We found ourselves wishing we could spend much more time slowly exploring each and every museum and gallery this city has to offer.
Cheers from these Washingtonians,
Ted + Julia