The Smithsonian

I’m sure there are a lot of perks to being First Lady of the United States of America, but there are also (in my opinion) a few downsides as well. For one thing, they don’t let you keep your clothes.

This, I discovered last summer when I spent a couple of days exploring the Smithsonian. That beautiful ivory silk chiffon gown designed by Jason Wu that Michelle Obama wore to the 2009 inaugural balls? It’s sitting in the National Museum of American History. And the ruby-red velvet and chiffon gown (also by Jason Wu) that she wore exactly a week ago today is designated for the National Archives. (How is it I know the name of Michelle Obama’s designer, you ask? Let’s just call it an occupational hazard of my day job.)

The National Museum of American History is just one small part of the Smithsonian. James Smithson, a British scientist, bequeathed his estate to the United States for the founding at Washington DC of the Smithsonian Institution, which he envisioned as “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” After much discussion by politicians as to what such an Establishment might look like (a museum? a library? a university?), they settled on a museum, and the Smithsonian was established in 1846.

The Smithsonian Institute Building, commonly referred to as “The Castle,” was completed in 1855. The earliest collections, many of them donated by wealthy philanthropists, were first displayed here, but today it contains all of the administrative offices of the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall

The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall

I imagine it takes quite a bit of administrating. That’s because the Smithsonian isn’t your average museum ― it’s nineteen museums and galleries, and a zoo. Two are located in New York City, and the rest are in the DC area, with eleven of them scattered along the National Mall. And the best part? Admission to all of them is free. I managed to hit a grand total of three museums in two days. Even that was pushing it.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located in a splendid-looking building designed by Douglas Cardinal. It opened in 2004, and is the first American museum dedicated exclusively to the history of Native Americans. The exhibits are divided into four areas: Our Universes (Native beliefs), Our Peoples (Native history), Our Lives (contemporary Native life), and Return to a Native Place (Native peoples of the Chesapeake region). My time here was short, and I limited myself to a temporary exhibition entitled A Song for the Horse Nation ― an exhibit about how horses changed the lives of Native peoples. I’d like to go back and explore this museum some more.

National Museum of the American Indian

My next stop was the National Museum of American History.

National Museum of American History

My goal here was simple: to see Julia Child’s kitchen. I succeeded by the skin of my teeth. The exhibit was in the process of moving and had been closed for months, but the museum opened up a temporary display for two weeks just for the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth. Those two weeks overlapped with my visit ― did I luck out or what?

Julia Child's kitchen

Julia Child’s kitchen

Julia Child's pots and pans

Julia Child’s pots and pans

Also on display at this museum is the original Star-Spangled Banner ― the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the American national anthem after witnessing the bombardment at Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812. It’s massive, very old, and looks its age.

Entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit

Entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit

The exhibit on the American Presidency exhibit was particularly popular.

Presidents

The Smithsonian has a nickname: “the nation’s attic.” Judging by some of the artifacts passed on to the museum by former U.S. presidents, it’s easy to see why.

Impeachment

Bill Clinton's saxophone

Bill Clinton’s saxophone

I was a bit creeped out by the top hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he died, until it occurred to me that he probably wasn’t actually wearing it when he was shot, since he was indoors at the time.

The hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated

The hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated

But the most popular exhibit? It was the one called, simply, The First Ladies. It included an impressive display of White House china, and display case after display case of gowns and dresses worn by the first ladies, including that Jason Wu gown worn by Michelle Obama I was talking about earlier.

The First Ladies

From left to right: suit worn by Nancy Reagan at the 1980 Republican National Convention, evening gown worn by Lou Hoover, evening gown worn by Caroline Harrison, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural ball gown

From left to right: suit worn by Nancy Reagan at the 1980 Republican National Convention, evening gown worn by Lou Hoover, evening gown worn by Caroline Harrison, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural ball gown

Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural ball gown

Michelle Obama’s 2009 inaugural ball gown

Mary Todd Lincoln's  china

Mary Todd Lincoln’s china

A charred piece of wood from the White House, burned in 1814 by the British, and a painting of George Washington saved by Dolley Madison from the invading British soldiers

A charred piece of wood from the White House, burned in 1814 by the British, and a painting of George Washington saved by Dolley Madison from the invading British soldiers

My last stop was the National Air and Space Museum.

National Air and Space Museum

I lasted barely an hour here as it was extremely crowded and filled with screaming children. But I saw everything I wanted to see, including the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. If you have even a middling interest in either aviation or space travel, check this one out.

Planes

1903 Wright Flyer

Spirit of St. Louis

Amelia Earhart

Entrance

Apollo Command/Service Module

Apollo Lunar Module

I didn’t get to any of the art galleries (there are seven), nor the Natural History Museum. I’d like to check out that zoo some day as well. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2015; I expect it will be fascinating.

The Smithsonian is included on most Top 10 Lists of the world’s best museums. No wonder ― it has something for everyone.

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  1. The National Museum of the American Indian « There and Back Again - February 10, 2013

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