November 22, 2012
Friday, November 23: ZooLights
It’s that time of year at last, when we get to see all of our favorite Zoo creatures as giant, light-up sculptures! That’s right, folks, ZooLights is back at the National Zoo. So yeah, you can go and enjoy the wildlife and educational extras (and you should) but the real show starts at night when dazzling greens, yellows and reds bring the Zoo to life. The show attracts 100,000 visitors each year. And new this year, the Conservation Carousel done in the grand tradition of old-fashioned carousels with handcrafted representations of the Zoo’s animal icons. Model trains, snowless tubing and plenty of photo opportunities, ZooLights entertains young and old. Admission is free. Parking $9 FONZ members,
$16 nonmembers. Begins Friday 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. National Zoo.
Saturday, November 24: Booksigning with Mary Savig, Handmade Holiday Cards
Author Mary Savig will be signing her book, Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists. With 190 reproductions of holiday cards straight from the Archives of American Art’s collections, the book is an historical tour of commonplace commercial graphic design. From the Mondrian-inspired abstractions to Japanese prints, the collection provides an alternative take on holiday greetings with designs by famous artist, including Josef Albers, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Robert Motherwell. Talk with the author about her research process and maybe get some ideas for your own holiday card. Free. 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Castle.
Sunday, November 25: Metaphysical Baseball
David Stinson will be at the American History Museum signing copies of his book, Deadball, A Metaphysical Baseball Novel, about a minor league player possessed by visions of baseball greats gone by. Driven to the point of obsession, he begins traveling the country to see for himself the vanished stadiums and places that made baseball history. A novel thriller, the book also incorporates plenty of baseball history that fans will appreciate and enjoy. Free. 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. American History Museum.
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: