Take some time to visit the Smithsonian Museums to learn about the many stories that come together to create the American experience (spoiler alert: it’s ain’t all apple pie and baseball games).
Not all of the Smithsonian Museums have fully reopened in 2021. Please check the Smithsonian website for the most up to date information.
American History Museum
The National Museum of American History holds a lot of the iconic items that one associates with Smithsonian museums. Dorothy’s slippers get their own mini-rotunda and the First Lady’s gowns are elegantly displayed (much as they are at the party in the 80’s movie “Chances Are” which is set in DC and is an excellent introduction to non-profit fundraising with Robert Downey Jr.). One of the most well-traveled sections is “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden,” where you can see President Lincoln’s hat and learn about the inner workings of life in the White House through different administrations. The Museum takes you through innovation in American History, from transportation to how we cook. The large first-level “Eat at America’s Table” cafeteria specializes in classic American food, although we prefer the smaller Jazz Café on the First Floor, with coffee and smaller entrees (they had us at build your own macaroni and cheese.)
Museum of the American Indian
The Museum of the American Indian is overwhelmingly comprehensive (in a good way). Plan for multiple days to really delve into the many cultures that may be foreign to you, despite the fact the people to whom they belong were the first to live on the land where we now do. The imagiNATIONS Activity Center is a space with books, research areas, and space for small children to play in child-size traditional dwellings. The exhibit Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World uses eight tribes to explore all aspects of their culture, from spirituality to how natural resources are used. Americans is an exhibit space that reflects on how American Indians are represented in American culture, and explores the facts behind many legends that we now consider part of American (including the life of Pocahontas).
I realize that most of the photos are of food, and for good reason. Our family tradition has been to eat at the Mitsitam Café each Thanksgiving Day. The café uses ingredients that would have been found in five distinct regions of the Americas and creates modern dishes that utilize aspects of traditional American Indian meals. My go to is the Plate Full of Colors, which allows me to visit each station and choose one of the many vegetarian side dishes.
Museum of African American History and Culture
I have visited the Museum of African American History and Culture twice. Both were profoundly impactful. It’s almost impossible to capture a visit to this museum in pictures; I haven’t even really tried. For a chronological history, you begin on the bottom floor and move upward through the history galleries, from slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond. At the end, you have the option to stop in Contemplation Court, where you can reflect on the horrors and tragedies, as well as the triumphs, of the African American experience. My last visit was in 2019, so I look forward to how the museum will continue to build on the calls for racial justice in this country. The upper galleries highlight African Americans’ contributions to society and culture. And while so many people consider the traditional American experience as white, it becomes even more clear through the exhibits that truly unique American culture arose from the African American experience.
Smithsonian Castle & Gardens
Smithsonian Castle acts as the main Visitor Center, with an introduction to the history of the Smithsonian Institution (including the crypt of the original benefactor, James Smithson). The museum has a gift shop with iconic items from all of the museums, a café, and temporary exhibitions. The Smithsonian Gardens are spectacular during the spring, when cherry and magnolia trees are in bloom.
National Postal Museum
Okay, no DC trip starts with “I can’t wait to learn about how we get our mail!” But don’t discount it, and the impact that the postal service has had on American history and culture. Learn about how we’ve gotten mail through our history, and the intricacy of how the system works today. And you’ll realize that you don’t have to be a philatelist to appreciate the art of the stamp. The building itself is impressive, located near Union Station in (appropriately) the old City Post Office Building.
Let me help plan your trip to Washington DC
american history tour
Library of Congress, National Archives, Lincoln Memorial, War Memorials, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
American Culture Tour
National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle), Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, National Cathedral.
Smithsonian Art Museums: The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, The National Museum of African Art, National Museum of Asian Art, Portrait Gallery , American Art Museum Renwick Gallery, The National Gallery of Art
In & Around Waschington DC
Cherry Blossom Festival (Spring), Chinatown, Georgetown, Arlington, Mount Vernon, Alexandria