East Coast, USA, Uncategorized, Washington DC

Washington DC- Art Museums

The National Mall is flanked on each end by The Capitol building and The Lincoln Memorial. The Mall is home to four Smithsonian Museums that have primarily art collections: The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, The National Museum of African Art, and the National Museum of Asian Art. The National Gallery of Art is also on the Mall, with two buildings connected by a tunnel with an expansive café and gift shop. North of the National Mall in the Convention Center District are the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. The Renwick Gallery is across from the White House, and holds exhibitions of contemporary crafts for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I’m sharing my experiences from visiting the Smithsonian Museums and Washington DC for nearly two decades. While many of the permanent exhibits remain static over time, some of the photos and information may not accurately represent the current museum collections. I always check the Smithsonian Institution ‘s Website for a list of special exhibition, current hours, and temporary closures.

Smithsonian MUSEUMS’s African & Asian Art collections

Most “Erving DC Museum Tours” start at the Smithsonian Metro stop and then the Smithsonian Castle. For the Art Museum tour, the next stop is the Asian collection at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery (collectively the National Museum of Asian Art). The Sackler Gallery is connected to the National Museum of African Art.

Best Bets with Kids:

  • The Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery, Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, and Monkeys Grasp for the Moon In the Museum of Asian Art.
  • The intricately designed and colorful pieces of The African Museum of Art make it a wonderful gallery to explore with children (although if you pay too close of attention to the masks you may have to explain the idea of encouraging reproductive fertility in detail). With kids, look for clothing, jewelry, and pieces depicting animals.


Nearly all of the Modern Art exhibitions in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden are temporary, so we make sure to visit on every trip. Amongst our favorite exhibitions have been Ai Weiwei: Trace, Rafael Lozano Hemmer: Pulse, and Manifesto, Art X Agency Most recently, the One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection was on display through July 16, 2023

The museum itself is an example of Brutalism architecture, which recently made the news round as it was banned by a certain Presidential Administration. Owning it’s controversial design, the museum is affectionately called the “Brutalist donut.”

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC

Ongoing Exhibitions at the Hirshhorn

Past Exhibitions at the Hirshhorn

The National Gallery of Art is divided into two wings; the West Building houses the classic collection and the East Building offers the contemporary collection. The winding rooms of the galleries in the West Building require a map (or using the App) if you want to find a specific piece or collection.

The wings are connected by a tunnel, where the station style café offers high quality meal options, coffee, and gelato. The highlight of any trip is the moving walkway between the wings, a piece of art in itself. The gelato is also the perfect bribery tool for a child that is objecting to visiting the fourth art museum of the day.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The modern collection in the East building is smaller, and one of the most iconic pieces is the Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock on a upper floor outdoor terrace. A small café also offers light meals, drinks, and views of the National Mall below. Adjacent to the indoor exhibitions is the Sculpture Garden, with a central fountain that turns into an ice skating rink in the winter. The Garden Café is one of our favorite dining experiences during the spring Cherry Blossom Festival, with themed drinks and desserts.

Renwick Gallery of Art

The Renwick Gallery, located almost directly across from the White House, also has rotating exhibitions that use a central theme to bring together multiple contemporary craft artists. Some of our favorites have included No Spectators: Wonder, The Art of Burning Man, and Michael Sherrill Retrospective.

While the exhibitions change often, the building itself holds a lot of history; it was designed in the late 1850s by prominent Washington DC architect James Renwick to house the private collection of William Wilson Corcoran. After the collection was later moved and the US Government took ownership, it was set to be razed. In 1962 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took on the cause to have it preserved and in 1972 it reopened under the Johnson Administration as the Renwick Gallery.

The Renwick Gallery, 2015, Washington DC

Renwick Gallery– Past Exhibitions

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are connected by a massive central indoor courtyard, perfect for a glass of wine while in between galleries. In the Portrait Gallery, The most well-known collection is the Presidential Portraits. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is much smaller than the National Gallery of Art, with a focus on (obviously) American artists.

Both museums offer temporary and traveling exhibitions that often focus on American history and culture and ask for visitors to introspect on the American experience. The most powerful example for us was in 2019, with “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar“. In both museums, photography also plays a central role in documenting American history through art. Make sure to take time to stop in the ballroom for a dance, where you can pretend you are attending the Lincoln Inauguration Ball, held there in 1865.

National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

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