The too-often-obscured story of African Americans is magnificently unveiled in this jewel in the Smithsonian crown. Almost every conceivable aspect of the epic African American experience is explored here, from inspiring exhibits on great authors like James Baldwin and great visionaries like Malcolm X, to a poignant look at the era of slavery and segregation, and what came afterwards. Clothes once worn by slaves are on display, and it’s particularly fascinating to see items which belonged to the trailblazing black abolitionist and spy, Harriet Tubman.
Whether you’re here with kids, or still have that wide-eyed love of all things space-related from when you were a child, the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum is a must. This vast, state-of-the-art facility contains a mind-blowing planetarium, which will whisk you through the stars, but the real pinch-yourself moments come when you set eyes on relics which changed the world. They include the actual Wright Flyer, with which the Wright Brothers began the age of air travel, and the Apollo 11 command module which was once home to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Can the story of a nation be told through people’s faces? The National Portrait Gallery confirms it can. This renowned part of the Smithsonian showcases some of the most well-known, gasp-inducingly iconic portraits ever painted. The most popular are the depictions of the various US presidents through the ages – some of which take a surprisingly quirky, Pop Art-style approach to their prestigious suspects. Look out as well for other figures from American history, like Pocahontas, while through 2018 there’ll be a special “Sweat of Their Faces” exhibition which uses great art to tell the story of American workers through the generations.
Still hungry for art? This museum lets you delve into the river of creative genius that has flowed through the nation since its earliest days. Expect to lay your eyes on dreamy, 19th-century landscapes depicting the young United States, before seeing the bold, dynamic art of the New Deal era, and vibrant images of jazz culture and the rise of the mega-cities. From Cape Cod to Harlem, it’s all here in oil paint, and you can look out for some of the biggest titans in US art, from Thomas Hart Benton to Edward Hopper, as well as a vast collection of African American art.
Is the Hope Diamond really cursed? The Smithsonian may not know for sure, but you can see this famous, blue-hued jewel “in the flesh”, marvelling at its journey through the ages from the French aristocracy to its coveted spot in the heart of DC today. As you’d expect from one of the most popular attractions on the planet, the National Museum of Natural History has plenty of other things to blow minds, from its towering African elephant exhibit to its dazzling array of fossils that shed light on the early, angry epochs of the Earth.
Imagine seeing the actual, battle-tattered flag which inspired the US national anthem. That’s what’s in store at the National Museum of American History, which proudly displays the original Star-Spangled Banner – the vast flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the 1812 war, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became the national anthem. The genius of this museum is its sheer range – one moment you’ll be looking at grand relics like the flag, the next you’ll be seeing Duke Ellington’s sheet music, kitsch American advertising and famous cook Julia Child’s home kitchen. It’s a massive ode to Americana under one roof.
Not all the must-see museums in DC are part of the Smithsonian. Take the Newseum, a unique celebration of free speech, and the brave, dangerous work undertaken by journalists throughout the world. It’s a vivid, interactive experience, and some of the standout areas include the shattering 9/11 Gallery, and tall sections of the Berlin Wall – the largest such display outside Germany. Look out as well for the collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, which ranges from the 1940s to today, as well as a heartbreaking memorial to the reporters who died while fearlessly covering their stories.
Not to be confused with the Smithsonian’s art institutions, the National Gallery of Art is very much its own thing, and quite a thing it is too. Wandering its walkways will take you on a journey through the entire history of art, with recognisable names everywhere you look. Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Titian and Rubens. Picasso and Pollock. They’re all here, represented by some of their most famous works. Don’t miss the museum’s Sculpture Garden, which – as well as being dotted with ornate, abstract works – is also transformed into a sparkling ice rink during the winter months.
This grand Smithsonian museum is jaw-dropping before you even go in. The exterior structure, clad in golden limestone, evokes the American West, and is a fitting first glance at the culture of the Native peoples. Inside, there are artworks, clothes and spiritual relics from more than 12,000 years of Native American history. Countless tribes are represented, in a museum which will make you see the nation in a new light, and challenge preconceptions about the days before the European colonists came to change everything.
Feel like becoming a secret agent for a day? The International Spy Museum can make it happen, thanks to its fun “Operation Spy” interactive experience, which sees visitors enter the dangerous realm of Khandar to take part in political espionage. The rest of the museum is just as interesting, with its in-depth look at the murky world of spycraft through the centuries. It goes right back to the days of Cardinal Richelieu and his minions, before laying bare the shadowy goings-on of the Cold War. Expect to see actual KGB photos, archive training films and photos of captured spies and weird gadgets which Q would have been proud of.
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