My Two Favorite Smithsonian Museums

by Gray Cargill on February 25, 2015

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You know how there are museums that you visit once and you’re glad you did, but you also know you never need to go back again? This article is not about that kind of museum. I’ve been to Washington, DC exactly two times–once back in the 1990s for a single rainy Saturday and once this past October for 5 days–and on both trips, I chose the same two Smithsonian Museums to visit. This, despite the fact that the Smithsonian has 18 museum properties in DC.

Believe me, I did my research on all of them. (To be fair, I did visit the American History Museum back in the ’90s and I would have visited the Zoo on this trip, but I ran out of time.) The truth is, these were the two that appealed to me the most, then and now.

Since my last trip to DC took place around 20 years ago, I think the argument can be made that it was time to revisit these museums. After 20 years, the ol’ memory isn’t what it used to be, and I could barely remember what I saw back then, anyway. So visiting them felt like a new experience, not an old one.

It had absolutely nothing to do with me geeking out over space ships and dinosaurs.

Ahem.

Okay, maybe it had everything to do with me geeking out over space ships and dinosaurs. I’m sure the identities of these two museums will come as no surprise to most of you, because they’re probably your favorites, too. Or at least your children’s.

The Natural History Museum: Where Are the Dinosaurs?

(Location: 10th St. and Constitution Avenue NW)

elephant

The elephant in the rotunda.

Despite having walked my legs off on a ridiculously taxing, self-imposed monuments and memorials tour of DC in the morning, followed by a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I pushed myself to visit this Museum on the Sunday afternoon of my stay. Not because I’m a masochist (really), but because their website indicated that it was the last day the public could view the dinosaur bones in the Rex Room before they began transitioning them to their new home on the second floor (and the second floor exhibit wouldn’t be open during my stay).

So I was more than a little disappointed that what I saw through the locked Rex Room windows really weren’t worth the effort. All that was there at the time were a couple of dinosaur skulls. Fortunately, there are other dinosaur bones around the museum, including an extremely scary-looking creature that seemed like it might have been an ancestor to the crocodile (but much, much bigger). It was something I wouldn’t want to meet while swimming in a lake, if you know what I mean.

bones

I don’t know what the hell this was, but I wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark body of water.

They also have a great collection of other mummies and bones, like a giant leatherback turtle and a whale skeleton. Not to mention the stuffed elephant in the rotunda. Sant Ocean Hall is a must-see.

So while I didn’t get to see a T-Rex skeleton (because let’s face it, that’s what we all think of when we think of dinosaur bones), I still enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum. Well, mostly. It was mobbed with families with young kids on a Sunday afternoon. The noise level gave me a wicked headache.

I toyed with the idea of seeing the Hope Diamond, but when I got there, there was a crowd around it four people deep, and I realized I just didn’t care that much about seeing it. I did get to see some cool fragments of space rocks, though. Honestly, I find space rocks much more interesting than jewels.

whale skeleton

Whale skeleton

The real highlight of my time here, though, was watching the IMAX movie Jerusalem 3D. It cost about $9 and was totally worth it, even though it was only 45 minutes. Jerusalem 3D showcases how three different religious cultures–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–all live in this city that all three consider holy.

Instead of focusing on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, the movie portrays the points of view of girls from each of the three cultures and shows how family and religion are important to all of them and how important the city is–as “home”–to all of them. Even if I have the chance to travel to Jerusalem myself, I doubt I’d see the everyday lives of its residents in such detail from the point of view of an “insider,” so the movie was fascinating to me.

Speaking of travel, that brings me to my favorite of the Smithsonians:

The National Air & Space Museum: Can I Live Here?

(Location: Independence Ave at 6th Street, NW)

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

A recreation of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, when manned spacecraft of the US and Soviet Union rendezvoused in orbit.

This is THE Smithsonian Museum for anyone who loves travel. They’ve got historical airplanes like Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the plane that the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903; commercial airplanes; and military planes. Right now they’ve got an exhibit on how air travel changed Hawaii forever. My favorite parts of the museum, though, covered the history of space flight.

Hubble test telescope

Hubble test telescope

At the Air & Space Museum, you can see the Mercury Friendship 7 (in which John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth), the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia (in which Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins traveled to the moon and back), a Viking Lander test vehicle that is like the ones that landed on Mars; lunar exploration vehicles; and much more.

manned spacecraft

There’s not a lot of room in these things.

Let’s just say that being an astronaut is not for the claustrophobic. They have spacecraft at the museum that you can look inside to see what it’s like. There is not a lot of room in there. And if you consider this tiny little compartment that you’re crammed into is the only thing between you and the bazillion ways to die in space….it is not for the faint of heart, either.

Among their displays, they answer all those burning questions you have about space travel, such as:

how do they go to the bathroom in space?

Come on, you know you’ve always wondered this.

I saw two movies here in the Albert Einstein Planetarium (“Journey to the Stars”) and the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, “To Fly.” “Journey to the Stars” (about the life and death of stars) was great, I highly recommend it. The first 10 minutes of “To Fly” (about the history of flight) are pretty lame, but after you get past that, it gets better. (They need to update this movie and shorten the hot air balloon section. It just drags on and on.)

Of course, the best thing about these museums is that they’re free. World-class museums that are free; you don’t see that very often in the United States, so take advantage of it when you’re in DC.

1966 timeline

1966 was a landmark year in space. But wait–they’re missing the premiere of Star Trek!

Trivia:

  • I’ve heard the cafe next door at the American Indian Museum is the place to eat, but if you’re pressed for time, the Wright Place Food Court isn’t bad–it takes up two floors with ample seating in a sunny atrium.
  • The bathrooms at the Air & Space Museum are so much cleaner than the ones at the Natural History Museum. Just sayin’.
Fabiana March 14, 2015 at 12:51 pm

These sound like a lot of funt to visit. My boys would love going there.

Gray Cargill March 14, 2015 at 7:12 pm

Absolutely, Fabiana, I think most children would. (Even us big kids!)

Ian March 6, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Love the Air and Space Museum … the 20th century was so amazing for humankind … can’t wait for the run up to the mission to Mars!

Gray Cargill March 8, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Hey, it’s nice to hear from another space fan, Ian!

Tracy Antonioli February 28, 2015 at 11:34 pm

I had a moment with the T-Rex when I was in college. It’s…a long story. Sorry that you missed him (or her).

As for air and space–they have AMAZING docent-led tours. The guy who led ours was so knowledgable it was ridiculous.

I love DC.

Gray Cargill March 1, 2015 at 4:56 pm

“A moment,” Tracy? Hmm… 🙂 Oooh, I’ll have to go back for a tour at A&S next time. I feel like I had so little time on this trip. Great excuse to go back!

De'Jav February 26, 2015 at 7:13 am

This a great place that offers tons of museums for some great learning experiences.

Gray Cargill February 26, 2015 at 12:44 pm

It is, De’Jav.

Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com February 25, 2015 at 11:24 pm

Aww I would also love to see their Air and Space Museum. I was a huge astronomy enthusiast in college and the highlight of my uni years was meeting Eugene Cernan here in the Philippines, talking to him a bit (one on one!) about his time as an astronaut, and getting his photograph LOL

Gray Cargill February 26, 2015 at 12:45 pm

OMG, you met an astronaut?! How exciting, Aleah! I would geek out over that. Yeah, you would definitely love the Air & Space Museum then.

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