Beyond the monuments, any visitor to Washington, D.C. must take advantage of the free museums, especially the National Gallery of Art and the assorted Smithsonian Institution museums that surround the National Mall. The National Gallery of Art literally and figuratively knocked us off our feet so much that we needed three separate morning sessions to see the incredible collection. The wealth of sculptures, prints, and original paintings (such as Gerrit van Honthorst’s 1623 painting, The Concert, above) from many centuries left us both sighing in awe — and that was just the West Building; the East Building was closed for renovations. We also enjoyed the additional sculptures on display across the street in the Sculpture Garden, which is conveniently located next to the Pavilion Café. The café and its delightful fountain were the perfect place to rest our tired feet and perk up with a cup of coffee and a snack.
We visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which has an impressive display of airplanes like Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis hanging from the ceiling, rockets and other enormous flying machines, but the graphics in the interpretive exhibits could use some freshening up. Nevertheless, the place is so big that it’s hard to see everything of interest. My favorite section was the civil aviation area that depicted the good old days of air travel. That is, they were good if you wanted to be a flight attendant and were a young, slim, pretty female. The sexist, racist and ageist hiring policies in those days — combined with skimpy uniforms at one point in the Sixties — would be lawsuit-worthy today. But that was also at a time when the U.S. government set ticket prices and airlines had to compete on extras like service, meals and amenities. That part would be great to go back to!
Another Smithsonian jewel that we simply did not allow enough time to fully explore was the National Museum of American History. It was not at all what we expected. The first floor had a fantastic interactive collection focusing on popular culture, and I devoted a few hours to the American Enterprise section on consumer goods and trends, advertising, the economy and capitalism. I also loved the FOOD exhibit that included TV chef Julia Child’s kitchen, which she donated to the Smithsonian. The entire kitchen was dismantled from her home in Cambridge, Mass., (where her shows from the 1990s were filmed) and reassembled here in the museum. An accompanying exhibit detailed her life story, and videos of her shows played on a loop. The rest of the FOOD exhibit highlighted gastronomic trends in the second half of the 20th Century, bringing back a host of fond memories of culinary fads from my childhood.
I had to tear myself away to zip through the enormous section on transportation. This area juxtaposed full-size cars, motorcycles, trucks, boats, campers, buses, trains and other artifacts with fascinating statistics, anecdotes and multimedia displays. You can’t help but slow down and try to absorb the interesting details that tell the story of how transportation has evolved throughout this country’s history. Closing time came all too soon.
In our remaining time in the capital, we squeezed in visits to the African Art Museum, Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Castle. At the castle we learned how the Smithsonian Institution — another one of America’s greatest treasures, in my opinion — came about. Established in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, thanks to British scientist James Smithson. He bequeathed his vast estate to the United States to create an organization dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” With free admission to more than 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoo, everyone who visits Washington, D.C., can enjoy Smithson’s generous gift. And for us, this visit will not be our last. Five full days in the city allowed us to explore only a fraction of what we wanted to see, so we simply must come back again.