There are nineteen fascinating museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo which comprise the public outreach of the Smithsonian Institution. There's much more which happens behind the scenes as part of the Institution's work. Visitors can enjoy the surroundings, connect with objects which are actual parts of the world's history, culture, and technology, and become inspired by all that these collections represent. Many of the museums are along the National Mall and are easily accessed, for free, during a visit to the Capital District. There are plenty of museum shops and places to eat, making it easy to spend the day.
Three things to remember when visiting the Smithsonian Institution at the National Mall: the museums are free to visit, security procedures can slow things down on busy days, and there is no public parking. The website offers several solutions to the parking challenges including a third-party parking reservation system. There is a mobile app and a downloadable PDF guide and map which is available in over ten languages plus large print. At the visitor's center, guides can help you plan your visit, get IMAX tickets, meet your accessibility needs and coordinate group visits.
The Smithsonian considers the landscapes and gardens surrounding its museums to be part of its mission and outreach, covering 180 acres on the National Mall and spaces inside the museums as well. The Institution has 64,000 square feet of greenhouses and over a century of archival records and photographs covering American landscape history. Even when visitors are resting and enjoying the open spaces, they can learn and experience what the Smithsonian has to offer.
Presenting artifacts and recreations connected with early flight and the adventures in the sky and outer space, the National Air and Space Museum has expanded to a second location near Dulles Airport in addition to its presence on the National Mall. As with most of the Smithsonian's museums, it is free to visit and supports ongoing research both into the history and future of flight and planetary science.
The National Museum of the American Indian has dual locations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and New York City. It holds one of the largest collections of artifacts, focusing on the Western Hemisphere. This museum not only features displays of artifacts but also has spaces for musical and cultural events and performances. It has a strong emphasis on web-based and traveling exhibits and events to reach out to Native communities and the general public.
The National Gallery of Art and the adjacent sculpture garden are "the nation's museum," designed by I.M. Pei and John Russell Pope and free to access and with collections which help to understand art and culture of the United States as well as other countries with a historical perspective. There are over 141,000 items in the collection with some on display in curated galleries, while others are available for scholars and students to access for research and inspiration.
One of the Smithsonian's more recently established museums, the National Museum of African Art began with the collection of a foreign service employee. It has followed both a path of social awareness and a scholarly direction in presenting artifacts and stories of cultural relevance to African life, art, and history. In the late 20th century, the museum became an official part of the Smithsonian, and a new building was constructed to house the growing collection and work.
Many of the Smithsonian museums are located along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This amazing green space provides a chance to sample some of each as well as make an in-depth visit. Since they feature free admission there's no need to select just one or two to visit. Your time and energy are the deciding factors for most visitors. There are parks, restaurants and open space for resting between museum visits. Though admission is free, security procedures can consume time when visiting the Smithsonian, so plan ahead.
The National Zoo is known for their Pandas but they much more. The Zoo is housed on 163 acres and is only 20 minutes from the mall and castle by rail. One of the oldest zoos in the country, they emphasize not only the wildlife species in their care but also their habitats. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia provides 3,200 acres for research and preservation of hundreds of species of plants from trees to bamboo.
Perhaps the best time to visit the Smithsonian's museums is during cherry blossom season in March and April. The grounds of the castle are particularly beautiful and provide a great place to rest between visits. The National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place during that time, and the Smithsonian gets involved in celebrating this connection with Asian cultures. This includes a focus on their connection in the Freer and Sackler galleries.
The Smithsonian Institution is not just for storing and exhibiting items from the past, of course. Many of the items on display, especially in the natural history collection, were acquired in the course of expeditions and research conducted by people connected with the Institution. Their website includes a section for aspiring researchers and interns to connect with them. Perhaps one day they too can become involved with future projects around the world.