By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost Staff Writer
Have a day to see the National Mall? It’s a daunting task. There are more than museums, four monument and three government buildings on or adjacent to the Mall. How do you choose what to see? Here is a guide to six must-see museums and their highlights. This tour is designed to take from 10 a.m. to late afternoon. It is fit for all ages and all group sizes. With this guide you will see much of the culture, science and art the institutions on the Mall have to offer. These museums are easily accessible by Metro. Get off at the Smithsonian stop on the Blue Line and walk across the Mall to the first stop.
14th Street and Constitution Avenue
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)
Can’t Miss: “The Star Spangled Banner” (second floor)
The best place to start off your whirlwind Mall experience is the National Museum of American History, full of exhibits, permanent and temporary, that will appeal to every person in your group. Highlights include: “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” “Within, These Walls,” “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” and “National Treasures of Popular Culture.”
Can’t Miss: You literally can’t miss “The Star Spangled Banner” exhibit; it is right inside the entrance to the museum. Entering the exhibit, you will travel up a ramp, reading about the Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore while audio is played to further illustrate the information on the panels and the videos. The audio includes: “Washington burning,” “Sounds of a ship at anchor,” and “sounds of distant rockets and bombs.” When reading the descriptions of the sound bytes, they seem a little silly, but they are there to keep all of the senses working as you move through the exhibit.
Repeat visitors may remember the previous exhibit included the restoration process on display: women on scaffolding meticulously sewing and repairing the flag for its eventual permanent display. In the current exhibit, the flag is finally finished, behind glass, in a dimly lit, controlled environment room, almost glowing because of the lighting. The intrigue of the restoration is gone, and with it some of the appeal of the banner itself.
Following the actual viewing area for the flag, a large, touch animation table lets visitors interact with different parts of the flag, seeing the stitches up close and reading information about the restoration process (at least that aspect lives on in the exhibition.)
Finally, as you exit the exhibit, information about the creator of the actual flag, Mary Pickersgill, not Betsy Ross, its commissioner Maj. George Armistead, and Francis Scott Key, writer of the song that became the National Anthem, is displayed. This section is accompanied by “a medley of performances of The Star Spangled Banner” audio, easily recognizable and fun to hear spliced together.
There is a reason the “goSmithsonian” guide tells you to “begin here.” Family friendly in its length and interactive features, this exhibit gets you ready to experience all things “American” and showcases a part of American history that is as important today as when it was created during the Revolutionary War, the American flag.
The Kenneth E. Behring Center has undergone many renovations over the past four years, and while they have certainly made the interior space more visually appealing, it is clear that the aesthetics were more important than function in the process. For example, the “National Treasures of Popular Culture” exhibit is much too small to accommodate all those wishing to glimpse Dorothy’s red slippers. The format of the museum has remained generally the same, with escalators on each end of the building and exhibits scattered between and behind them. But don’t let the outside construction fool you: The museum is open.
10th Street and Constitution Avenue
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)
Can’t Miss: the Harry Winston Gallery
After your immersion into American culture, continue your day on the mall by going next door; the National Museum of Natural History cannot be missed. This museum is chock full of science and fun with its diversity of exhibits, IMAX theater and “Live Butterfly Pavilion.” As you enter, you are greeted by the towering African elephant of the popular Washington phrase, “Meet you by the elephant.” It is easy to get your bearings in the rotunda, as all of the major exhibits are well marked and directions to everywhere you want to go are plentiful. There is something for every science lover here from dinosaurs to Egyptian mummies, to moon rocks.
Can’t Miss: “A Rare Encounter: Together” showcases two of the world’s most valuable blue diamonds: the Smithsonian’s Hope Diamond and the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. The Harry Winston Gallery presents a timeline of each diamond, when and where it passed from owner to owner and how it came by its current cut and owner. The Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond is on display publicly for the first time in 50 years. Both diamonds originated in mines in India, some speculate the same mine, since they are so similar in color and size.
This exhibit is special not only because of the pairing of these gems but because for the first time, the Hope Diamond is displayed out of its original setting. To celebrate the anniversary of its entry into the Smithsonian collection, the Hope Diamond has been removed form the original setting, which is currently on display laying next to the diamond in its display case, and will be placed in a new setting in May. Smithsonian.com held a design contest and the winning design “Embracing Hope,” is being created by Harry Winston Inc., whose founder donated the gem to the Smithsonian, and for whom the gallery that houses the Hope Diamond is named.
Along with these two priceless diamonds, the gallery has four large mineral samples, quartz, sandstone and others. The gallery is not crowded, and since the Hope Diamond is displayed on a rotating pedestal, there is no need to jockey for position. Everyone can appreciate the value and beauty of these diamonds; however the gallery, and adjacent “National Gem Collection” and “Gems and Minerals” exhibit seemed to be largely occupied by mothers and daughters. All of the visitors were enjoying themselves, and like “meet me by the elephant,” a common joking statement was “I’ll take that one.”
If you are in need of a snack before you venture on down the mall, stop by the Fossil Café on the first floor at the end of the dinosaur hall, or the Ice Cream and Coffee Bar located outside the Atrium Café on the ground floor. They have sustainable treats.
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Sculpture Garden open 24/7)
Can’t Miss: the Sculpture Garden
Tired of being inside? Cross the Mall and walk down toward the Capitol Building until you see a large red jumble of iron beams. That’s Mark di Suvero’s “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) and you have reached the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This is a great break from reading, and allows your group to enjoy sculpture from some of the greatest artists of the modern era. Start with the silver “Kiepenkerl,” peddler, by Jeff Koons and walk down the stairs to your left as you start your relaxing tour of Hirshhorn sculpture.
As you wind your way along the paths, contemplating the meaning behind each work, and the connection between the titles and the works themselves, take a minute to enjoy the overall atmosphere of the sculpture garden. After the inevitable crowds at the first two museums, this should be a nice break.
At the center of the garden is a reflecting pool and one of the most intriguing works, “For Gordon Bunshaft” by Dan Graham created in 2006. The structure, made from two-way mirror, wood and steel, is a favorite for kids and adults. You look at the glass, expecting your reflection, but you see someone else! You look around to see who this reflection belongs to and it is a person further down the path, undoubtedly looking at a reflection of you. You can walk around the structure, open the door and go inside for a unique experience, or just sit on a bench and watch the laughter and fun. Everyone experiencing this work has a smile on their face.
(Make sure you walk down every path, or you might miss something wonderful.)
Other artists on display in the garden include: Auguste Rodin, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti. The final work as you complete your winding tour of the garden is “Wish Tree for Washington D.C.” by Yoko Ono. During all seasons, current spring budding excluded because of the delicate status of the tree at that time, visitors are encouraged to attach pieces of paper with their wishes written on them to the tree. This iconic sculpture is a must see and experience for all visitors to the sculpture garden.
As you walk up the stairs and out of the official garden, look across the street at Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke” in front of the Hishhorn itself. The sculpture collection continues around the museum, with plenty of opportunities to sit and enjoy, including in the courtyard around the asymmetrical fountain, and ends with Claes Oldenburg’s “Geometric Mouse” at the entrance of the museum. If your art bug isn’t satisfied, head inside for galleries filled with modern art, otherwise, exit the museum grounds toward Independence Avenue and walk to your left to the next destination.
(Note: please do not touch the sculpture. That includes children and adults.)
Independence Avenue at Sixth Street
Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (most days March 28 – September 5)
Can’t Miss: “Visions of Earth”
As you enter The National Air and Space Museum, you are confronted with huge hallways filled with aircraft, crowds of people and the feeling of utter chaos. The first floor of the museum is basically divided in two: on the east side, space and rockets, on the west, airplanes and aviation. The second floor is a mixture of the two and including the Albert Einstein Planetarium, the Wright Brothers gallery and many others.
If you don’t enjoy throngs of children screaming at their parents to let them have dehydrated ice cream and let them ride the simulator, this may be a difficult museum for you to enjoy. That said, there is no better place in Washington to experience the history of flight and space exploration.
The Air and Space Museum is trapped in a collision of the 1970s and the 2000s. The Can’t Miss of this museum is a great example of that: “Looking at Earth” on the ground floor on the east side of the building. Need to escape the announcements about how many minutes you have to buy your IMAX tickets before the next show? Duck into this exhibit on how humans have viewed the Earth from the air, and from space.
At the start of the exhibit, “A Bird’s Eye View” shows us the first camera strapped to a pigeon (to take images in flight) as well as cartoons of photographers hanging out of hot air balloons. The exhibit progresses through time to show how we have taken and used images from the air for social, military and scientific research. Satellites are given a large portion of the exhibit, and on display are the TIROS, GOES and ITOS satellites themselves. Finally the “What’s New” section shows new ways scientists are using space imagery.
The exhibit is a mix of 1970s scientist and pilot mannequins and current video and weather technology. A station where you can view satellite images of anywhere on the planet is across from a dusty spy pilot seated on the wing of his jet. Enjoyable and informative, this quirky exhibit embodies the spirit of flight and the spirit of the National Air and Space Museum, without the dehydrated food and mass of people.
Independence Avenue at Fourth Street
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort”
Continue down Independence Avenue to the next building and you have reached the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum’s exterior immediately informs you that this is not an ordinary museum, its curving and organic stone face keep your eye moving as you walk around to the main entrance courtyard. You are greeted with a natural landscape, pond and sculpture by Native American artists. The large glass doors of the entry seem heavy but swing easily when you pull them open. The interior is bright and airy; the rotunda is open from floor level to the oculus in the ceiling letting in a beam of light.
The American Indian museum features many exhibits on current and past traditions, art and cultures of different groups of native American peoples, including “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,” “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” and others. The exhibits are comprehensive and engaging, if a little heavy on text. But we have so much to learn, we know so little, that the museum feels like it must tell you as much as it can while it has your attention.
Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort” is an exhibit of the Swiss-Canadian Native American installation artist’s works. Jungen is half Native American of the Dunne-Za First Nations and uses found objects to create his environmentally and socially conscious works. In the rotunda, a mobile of his work “Crux (As seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky)” is off to the side, a preview of the exhibit on the third floor. The exhibit is set up like an art gallery, not like the rest of the museum that has more of a scientific and social feel. The six rooms contain many different examples of his work.
Jungen’s work deals with Native American identity, especially related to sports and environmental issues. His environmental works are mainly in plastic, including his “Shapeshifter,” what looks like a whale skeleton made from white plastic chair pieces, and “Carapace,” an igloo-like structure based on Asian temples, created from trash bins. His more socially conscious works deal with the role of Native American mascots in the sports world.
His totem pole-like structures made from golf bags and titled after their years, are particularly striking for their height and their geometric aesthetics. Jungen creates faces out of sports gear and you can’t help but smile initially when you see these works. However, his work deals with issues that are under the surface, just like his meaning is under the surface of his art.
By now you are probably famished. If you made it past the food court trap in the National Air and Space Museum (really, do you want McDonalds?), then eat at the Mitsitam Café. Delicious native inspired dishes abound. Tip: order a few side dishes instead of an entrée to get a taste of all the cultural foods offered.
100 Maryland Ave. SW (adjacent to the U.S. Capitol)
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Can’t Miss: The Conservatory
Now that you’ve been tuned in to more natural aspects of life, walk across the street toward the Capitol to the Botanic Garden. Here’s the reward at the end of your National Mall tour. If it’s been a long, hot day, take some refuge in the cool Garden Court; if it’s been rainy and cold, warm up in the Jungle or the Tropical Gardens. The U.S. Botanic Garden complex includes the indoor Conservatory, the exterior National Garden and Bartholdi Park across Independence Avenue.
The Botanic Garden has many different gardens for all of the different ecosystems found in the country from desert to primeval plants to Hawaii and tropical jungle, and rare and endangered plants. Visitors enjoy wandering through the gardens, stopping to take pictures of the many flowers, especially orchids, and just relaxing in the atmosphere. The walkways can be quite narrow however, so be wary of strollers and large groups. If you get stuck behind a tour group, the best option is to back-track and come back to that area later. Professionals are at stations to provide detailed information about plants and gardening, as well as give tours of the conservatory.
The West Gallery has an exhibit called “Plants and Culture” that allows visitors to smell fragrances that come from flowers and plants, products that come from plants and plants in our everyday lives. The huge metal flower sculptures are fun for all ages, with videos in their centers showing live plants growing as well as other clips.
The conservatory is a wonderful final stop for a tour of the Mall, relaxing, but fun and informative.