November 20, 2012
If you think your house is going to be packed for Thanksgiving, imagine the crowds at a Smithsonian museum. According to the Washington Post, the museums had 418, 000 visitors over the holiday weekend in 2010. Though that number dipped in 2011, the institution is still gearing up for a full house.
To help visitors navigate their way through the 19 museums and National Zoo, Smithsonian will be fielding questions before and during the holiday on its Twitter page. Just follow @smithsonian and use the hashtag “#TgivingVisitTips” to stay up to date. Veteran visitors will also post their own tips with the hashtag, including, “1) eat at
@SmithsonianNMAI 2) take a pic at @NMAAHC site for posterity 3) comfy shoes” by Erin Blasco.
Here are some of our own insider tips, from our Greatest Hits guide (now available on your smart phone!):
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle: Your first stop for all things Smithsonian, the Castle is home to the information center where you can scope out all the current exhibits around the Mall, including the Castle’s own exhibit, “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront.” You can also pay your respects to the founder, James Smithson, who lies at rest in the crypt in the building’s foyer.
National Portrait Gallery: With several new exhibits and a host of permanent favorites, there’s plenty to take in at the gallery (like Alexander Gardner’s famous cracked glass plate portrait of Abraham Lincoln), including the building itself. On the third floor in the Great Hall, is an architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed. The yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows in the octagonal dome, dating to 1885, cast lush hues on sunny days.
American Art Museum: Housed in the same building as NPG, is the American Art Museum, which just opened its splendid new exhibit “The Civil War and American Art,” which is sure to draw crowds. The museum even had its own role in the Civil War: On the third floor near the Woman Eating sculpture, the initials C.H.F. are scrawled on the wall. The work of some hipster tagger? No, the graffiti artist also put a date: “Aug. 8, 1864.” Likely it was left by a patient; the building was a Civil War infirmary.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Not quite on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center (in Chantilly, Virginia—near Dulles Airport) is home to a world-famous collection of aircraft a space vehicles, including the Air France Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. After seeing those beauties, tell the kids to check this out. Look for seven hidden oddities in the model of the mother ship made from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These were internal Hollywood jokes that weren’t part of the script. Hint: One is R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars.
Air and Space Museum: The world’s most-visited museum, Air and Space has everything from moon rocks to the Wright flyer. But how did they get it all in there? Look closely at the large window on the west side of the building. The glass slide away like giant garage doors.
American History Museum: Next up from the big three, American History, where even celebrities like Parks and Rec‘s Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) like to hang out. In addition to the brand new exhibit “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ with Julia Child’s kitchen, you’ll also want to stop by the first floor for the Dolls’ House. Inside the house, inhabited by Peter Doll and his family, Christmas decorations are kept in the attic. Each holiday season, curators retrieve the tiny tree and wreaths and decorate the house.
Anacostia Community Museum: After an extensive research process, the museum recently opened its exhibit “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” as part of its efforts to reach out to the community. Comparing waterways in L.A., Pittsburgh, Louisville, London, Shanghai and here in D.C., the exhibit is full of artworks and informative displays. Check out the playful piece Talking Trash, kinetic sculpture of fish made from plastic water bottles.
Natural History Museum: The grand dame of the big three museum, Natural History is famous partly for housing the “cursed” Hope Diamond. But it’s not all sparkle and shine. Heard of donating your body to science? Professor Grover Krantz volunteered to be put on display at the Smithsonian–with his dog. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead,” he said. Find the pair on the second floor.
American Indian Museum: What better time to visit the American Indian Museum than November, American Indian Heritage Month? In addition to its award-winning cafe and engaging exhibits, it has a treat for those who know where and when to look. Watch for the lovely play of light in the Potomac Atrium. Eight prisms on the south wall project refractions on the floor. See them at the peak of their brilliance between 11 and 2. On the summer and winter solstice, the light lines up precisely.
Freer Gallery: Amid the jades and bronzes from Asia, a fierce fight is playing out. The two birds depicted squawking in battle on the back wall of Whistler’s Peacock Room represent a real-life contretemps between the artist and his patron over a disputed fee for the artwork.
Sackler Gallery: With a new blockbuster exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Sackler is as busy as ever. This year, the Sackler celebrates its 25th anniversary of the 1987 gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a New York City physician.
Hirshhorn Museum: Contemporary art lovers will be filling the circular gallery space to check out Barbara Kruger’s installation and the new exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” But you’ll be headed outside. Ready for a little covert operation? Check out the sculpture Antipodes just outside the front door. The piece has two encoded texts, one related to C.I.A. operations and the other in Cyrillic related to the K.G.B.
Museum of African Art: The current exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” is out of this world, combining science and the arts over time. Our insider tips combines its own bit of science and art. Check out the sculpture of Toussaint Louverture. It is made of a mysterious substance that the artist also used to waterproof his house.
Renwick Gallery: Just a few steps from the White House, the Renwick is a must-see in its own right, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Up the stairs is one of the city’s premier galleries, the Grand Salon, modeled in the French Second Empire style.
National Postal Museum: A stamp collection that can’t be beat, including the first ever U.S. government-issued stamp from 1847, is just the start of the Postal Museum. This building was designed by Daniel Burnham, the protagonist of the best-seller Devil in the White City.
National Zoo: In addition to the cuddly cuties on display, the Zoo is also launching this year’s seasonal display, ZooLights, Friday, November 23. As you wander through the animals, listen for the morning songs of the white-cheeked gibbons. They can be heard up to one mile away.
Don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.
September 19, 2012
During the Civil War, Americans followed the battles at home with collectable photographs of generals and prints of the battlefields that were published in the daily newspaper. But an earlier technology, stereophotography—a form of 19th-century 3-D imaging—also allowed people to view photographs from the field using a hand-held device called stereoviewer. Now, visitors to the Smithsonian Castle Building get a sense of how Americans of that era kept track of the tragic unfolding of the war’s battles and skirmishes.
“Stereophotography was less than ten years old,” explains the show’s co-curator Michelle Delaney, “but it was instrumental in bringing the image of the war into the home.”
The show “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront,” a collaboration between the National Museum of American History and the Civil War Trust, as well as the History Channel, is divided into three areas: the role of the Smithsonian during the Civil War, the rise of photojournalism and new photographic techniques, including stereophotography, and the home front experience.
The materials, including photographic equipment and many images that have never before been on public view, are impressive but the highlight is undoubtedly the exhibit’s clever execution of presenting 19th-century stereophotography to a 21st century audience using original Civil War era pictures.
A rotating slideshow on a large screen dramatically transforms prints into multidimensional images. Comprised of thin, even black lines, the first image of a row of soldiers lost in battle makes the bodies appear neat and compact, receding into the open field’s horizon. But using a pair of 3-D glasses, the same scene appears not as a print but as a 3-D photograph. What was at first a familiar historical image of those soldiers is now transformed into a scene both haunting and full of humanity, formed from the varying grays of shadows and light.
Though museum visitors are viewing these depictions through the red and blue cellophane glasses used for IMAX movies, they are actually seeing a photograph from the Civil War era as contemporary citizens would have before putting them into the stereoviewer.
“Three-D, which is so popular right now,” explains the exhibition’s co-curator Michelle Delaney, “actually started back in the 1850s, just before the war.”
The popularity of stereoview images was not just due to the novelty of the technology, says Delaney, but also the intimate and tactile quality of the viewing experience. “You could be in your own parlor, in your own living room, with your own stereoviewer looking at sets.” Americans could see soldiers lounging at a campsite or the dead strewn across a battlefield.”
Along with the carte-de-visite images of army generals, and reports and illustrations from correspondents, the stereoscope images were part of a media-rich landscape, says Delaney, that brought a national crisis into the domestic sphere. The war became, in part, because of proliferation of new visual material, a personal drama to the entire young country.
The Smithsonian building, which was completed in 1855, also played its own role during the war. Delaney’s was attracted to the diaries and letters from the staff and family of then Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, which describe the atmosphere of anticipation that gripped D.C. as they watched battles unfold in the distance. “Secretary Henry received 12 muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition to secure the Castle,” says Delaney, but, she adds that the Institution “remained in operation, regular everyday museum operation, the entire time.” Though the Castle avoided harm, Henry was involved in military matters, advising Lincoln on scientific technologies, including the telegram and the balloon core.
“Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront” runs from July 2012 to July 2013.
August 30, 2012
Friday August 31, The Scientist Is In
You’ve seen the T-shirts: man evolved to walk on two feet–and then evolved to study how man evolved to walk on two feet. Meet Kevin Hatala, PhD candidate at George Washington University who studies the development of human locomotion and spends a whole lot of time looking at prehistoric footprints in Kenya and Tanzania. Join Hatala for the ongoing Human Origins Today discussion series for an open-ended Q + A session. Interested in evolution, biomechanics, gait? So is he and he’s happy to answer any and all your burning questions. 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Free. David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, Natural History Museum.
Saturday September 1, American Trail
With its wide range of ecosystems, North America offers a dizzying range of biodiversity. But now, a walk along the coast is just a stroll along the Zoo’s newly opened American Trail. After renovations to existing habitats, including for the beavers and bald eagles, and a completely new sea lion and seal exhibit, the trail is finally open. Visitors can see wolves, pelicans and, of course, the playful seal and sea lions in their new state-of-the-art home, which includes a wave pool to mimic the ocean. Free. National Zoo.
Sunday September 2, Behind-the-Scenes Castle Tour for Members
The Smithsonian’s first and oldest building is home to a wealth of often undiscovered knowledge. Though now a vast research complex of 19 museums, libraries and research facilities, as well as the National Zoo, the Smithsonian was once just a single building. Get in-the-know with a behind-the-scenes tour that takes you to founder James Smithson’s crypt, the Secretary’s Parlor and the historic library. Many of these rooms are not open to the public but will be on view for members attending the tour. Learn about the history behind the development of the Smithsonian Institution. 9:45 a.m. Sundays. Free. Smithsonian Institution Building.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. And download our new Visitors Guide & Tours App for both iPhone and Android. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
August 10, 2012
It was just 166 short years ago that President James K. Polk signed into law a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution. Founded at the bequest of the British mineralogist and chemist James Smithson, the Smithsonian was created for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” and we’ve been at it ever since. Over the years, the Institution has grown to 19 museums and the National Zoo. Here’s a look at how it got there:
July 11, 2012
Getting around the Smithsonian museums has never been easier thanks to a partnership with Google Maps. Visitors using smart phone with Android can now get step by step walking directions through every floor of 17 of the Smithsonian’s museums, including the big three: the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum and the American History Museum.
After seven months of working together to confirm the exact location of museum artifacts, Smithsonian and Google launched the new indoor maps on Tuesday. The announcement was widely covered by publications and outlets including the Washington Post, CBS and Huffington Post.
The maps, which also include the National Zoo, currently cover 2.7 million square feet, but will continue to expand as the partnership moves forward. And because so many tourists and families come looking for particular objects, hundreds of artifacts can be easily located and set as their own destination.
Looking for the Hope Diamond? Just select the item and the map will guide you through the Museum of Natural History. Parents weighted down with diaper bags and snack reserves will delight in the ease of the application.
The product will be available through Google Maps for Android. The database now includes the African Art Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the American Art Museum, the American History Museum, the American Indian Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the Freer Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Zoo, the Postal Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the Ripley Center, the Sackler Gallery and the Smithsonian Castle.
Stay tuned for even more exciting app news this month when the Smithsonian will be unveiling its newest tool for touring the museums in style.