on June 28, 2009
"Saturday I'll do the Smithsonian." So spoke my visiting colleague from our home office in California. He was in town over the weekend and wanted to see a few of the local attractions."Wonderful!" I replied. "Which museum do you plan to visit?""You know," he said, looking a bit confused, "the Smithsonian Museum.""Yes," I continued patiently, "but which one?"The substance of this exchange is all too common. Most people living outside the Washington metropolitan area probably think of the Smithsonian as simply "a museum." In fact, the Smithsonian Institution is a collection of 19 great museums (many, but by no means all, are located along the National Mall), plus a number of educational and research centers. Add to that the National Zoo and dozens of affiliate museums and other organizations nationwide.Okay, I admit it: my little family is absolutely smug about its intimacy with the Smithsonian. We cut our museum-going teeth under the guidance of its docents. Over the years, the proximity of this national treasure to our home has enriched our lives in countless ways, large and small. Thanks to the Museum of Natural History, for example, our children learned what dinosaurs looked like from the inside out. Moreover, we routinely credit this museum for our younger daughter's abiding fascination with fine jewelry: Almost from infancy, she's been possessed with a mad yearning for the Hope Diamond.Our girls' visits to the National Gallery of Art taught them the difference between a Monet and a Picasso even before they could read properly. (Note that although the National Gallery is often regarded as part of the Smithsonian, it is separately funded and governed. Officially, it is a Smithsonian "affiliate.") The girls also knew that the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) had the best ice cream parlor in town (alas, now replaced by the Constitution Café)—as well as an opportunity to gander at Fonzie's jacket. They learned about the rich diversity of American culture at the National Folklife Festival, an annual event on the National Mall sponsored by the Smithsonian. And the first zoo they ever visited was the National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian.As a family, we watched and anticipated as the Smithsonian grew and expanded. We waited impatiently for the opening of the National Air and Space Museum (now with multiple locations), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (again, not directly part of the Smithsonian, but caught in its web by proximity), the wondrous underground complex that comprises the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art and the National Museum of African Art, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, and of course the National Museum of the American Indian.For all our familiarity and experience with the Smithsonian, none of us would venture so far as to claim that we KNOW this marvelous institution. We know only those parts that have pulled us into their orbit—the parts we love best. At its base, our Smithsonian snobbery rests on the certainty that no individual can ever master it fully. "Harumph," we are likely to intone to the fool-hearty, "the very idea that you can 'do' the Smithsonian on a Saturday!" Not even a lifetime would suffice.With all this in mind, I took pity on my California colleague’s ignorance and guided him through the Smithsonian’s main Web site—and the site for the National Gallery added for good measure. I pointed out the long list of the Smithsonian’s museums, noting the ones located directly on the National Mall, and warned him to choose no more than two for his first visit. Despite their convenient clustering along the Mall, the various museums are actually separated by a good bit of walking distance. Finally, I pointed out The Castle, the red sandstone building that was Smithsonian’s original presence on the National Mall and that is now the institution’s Information Center. For anyone who is uncertain as to how to approach the daunting and delightful task of exploring the Smithsonian, the orientation film and a discussion with one of the information specialists at The Castle is a great place to start. The Information Center provides videos and handouts in a several languages and serves as a one-stop shop for details related to special exhibitions and programs Smithsonian-wide.
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