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Blue streak

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

by Katie Calvert

One of the great pleasures of a trip to Washington, D.C.
is visiting one or several of the museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution.

With more than a dozen museums whose exhibits range from dinosaurs to space exploration, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Smithsonian Castle at sunsetDubbed “America’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world. Best of all, admission is free for all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C.
The original red, sandstone Smithsonian building, now known as the Castle, is a good place to start your visit.
Smithsonian Castle from National MalBuilt with Seneca sandstone from Maryland, the building was designed by James Renwick, Jr. who also designed the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.
Located near the center of The National Mall, the Castle has information about the institution’s 17 museums and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., as well as its two museums in New York City. Helpful information specialists give directions and advice and can answer most questions.
Smithsonian Castle west wing interiorOne question that they will not be able to answer is why British scientist James Smithson—who had no discernible ties to the United States—left a bequest that funded the institute.
Joseph Henry statueSmithson’s will specified that if his nephew (the named beneficiary) died without issue, the money should “go to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Smithson’s nephew died—without an heir—in 1835. Three years later, more than 100,000 gold sovereigns were delivered to the U.S. Mint, and in 1946, an act of Congress signed by President James. K. Polk formally established the Institution. Smithson's gift established a research and curatorial institution that is without rival.
James Smithson’s remains are in a crypt near the north entrance to the Castle. They were brought here in 1904 from Genoa, where Smithson died in 1829 at the age of 64, by Alexander Graham Bell, who was Regent of the Smithsonian Institution at that time.

The Smithsonian museums include:

  • The National Air and Space Museum
       & The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (near Dulles International Airport in Virginia)
  • The National Museum of African Art
  • The National Museum of American History
  • The National Museum of the American Indian
  • The Anacostia Community Museum
  • The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • The National Museum of Natural History
  • The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture
      (encompassing the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum)
  • The National Postal Museum
  • The Renwick Gallery
  • The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art
      (The Smithsonian Institution's national museums of Asian Art)
  • The National Zoo
Slideshow—all photos on this page

Next: Air and Space Museum

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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson