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World’s Largest Museum, Education and Research Complex Holds Hidden Gems

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Say the word Smithsonian and lifelong Washingtonians and newcomers alike think of the museums that line the National Mall. But there is more to the 170-plus-year-old institution than those 11 museums. There’s the National Zoo, eight additional museums, mostly in Washington, D.C., research centers, cultural centers, gardens and programs to promote education and international collaboration.

In fact, the Smithsonian Institution is largest museum, education and research complex in the world. Many of its programs welcome visitors, but without knowing what’s on offer and where, you’d probably miss out on the best that the Smithsonian Institution, as the museums and programs are collectively known, has to offer.

Here are half a dozen ways to get more out of the Smithsonian’s treasures.

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Living History and Educational Enrichment

Possibly one of the best-kept Smithsonian secrets is Smithsonian Associates, which has grown since its founding in 1965 to become the largest museum-based education program in the world. The original idea behind Smithsonian Associates was to build an “especially close relationship” between the institution and members of Smithsonian Associates, who, in exchange for an annual membership fee, get privileged access to special educational and cultural benefits.

Today, members can take part in 750 programs covering everything from history to science to art, all inspired by the Smithsonian’s research, collections and exhibitions. Non-members also have access to many of the programs but pay up to 50 percent more to attend. (Memberships to Smithsonian Associates start at $50 a year.)

The costs are worth it, given the breadth of topics covered and the unique formats offered. There are concerts, tastings, lectures, tours and immersive all-day seminars. The events themselves span the gamut — and the world.

In August alone, for example, Smithsonian Associates hosted discussions and tastings on trends in South American and Australian wines; a practical guide on navigating the bumps of air travel; a behind-the-scenes look at Smithsonian gems like the Ruby Slippers worn in “The Wizard of Oz”; an all-day science program on how humans and bees are inextricably linked; hidden hikes around the Beltway; a look at how garden herbs enhance the flavor of beer; a preview of the upcoming D.C. theater season; and an exploration of how Catholic traditions are inspiring modern-day fashion.

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There are, of course, the popular cooking lessons with big names like Italian personality Lidia Bastianich and French icon Jacques Pepin, as well as the history lessons on ancient Rome and World War II. But the focus of the events also ranges from the incredibly specific to the oddly esoteric. Among them: programs on the physical realities of the human brain as a responsive organ; bridal traditions and wedding feasts in India; intriguing professions like scientists who analyze the earwax of whales and the fecal matter of cheetahs; passports and how they’ve changed our notions of identity; and a series on how emotions such as happiness, shame, anger and fear have shaped 250 years of American history.  

And this being Washington, politics is never far away, although here, too, the Smithsonian Associates puts a unique spin on our understanding of U.S. politics and foreign policy. For example, one recent program studied the long history of secret backchannel diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba. Another profiled the “Ghosts of Langley” and how CIA leaders past and present have shaped the spy agency. Another offered a peek inside the presidential retreat at Camp David.

In fact, Smithsonian Associates offers Washingtonians and foreigners alike a firsthand look inside the nation’s capital, from its up-and-coming restaurants to its storied past.

One of the star events offered by the Smithsonian Associates is a daylong visit to sites on the Potomac River that played key roles in the Civil War. On the last Saturday in August, a busload of Smithsonian Associates members and several non-members visited spots along the Potomac where Confederate forces crossed the river during America’s bloodiest conflict. On the itinerary was Rowser’s Ford, which today links Great Falls Park in Virginia with Seneca Creek in Maryland. Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart crossed from Virginia into Maryland with 5,000 cavalry troops in late June 1863, on the way to what was to be the decisive battle of Gettysburg. Swollen by heavy rain, the crossing was difficult and perilous.

Other stops in the 21st-century Smithsonian Associates tour were Edwards Ferry, crossed by Gen. Joe Hooker’s Army of the Potomac on the way to Gettysburg; Young’s Island Ford, where Gen. Julius Stahel’s Union cavalry entered Maryland; and Conrad’s Ferry (known today as White’s Ferry), used often during the Civil War to cross the river.

But the highlight of the day trip was White’s Ford near Dickerson, Md., a key river crossing during the Civil War. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces crossed the river here in September 1862, on their way to the Battle of Antietam, the single-deadliest day in the Civil War. Around 23,000 men died, were wounded or went missing during the battle. While the battle took an enormous toll on both sides, the retreat of Confederate forces from Maryland via White’s Ford allowed the Unionists to declare victory, which paved the way for President Abraham Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation freeing millions of African American slaves if they escaped the South.

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The 21st-century visitors to White’s Ford, including self-declared Civil War nerd and Smithsonian geek Mary Ellen King, were greeted by a band of musicians dressed in the period wool clothing of a Confederate band, along with descendants of Confederate officers and foot soldiers. After the band had sweltered through a series of songs from the epoch, the tour group headed down to the river to re-enact the many historic crossings made at White’s Ford during the Civil War. But just as Gen. Stuart found in 1863 at Rowser’s Ford, the river had been swollen by heavy rain, and, unlike the Confederate Army in the mid-1800s, Smithsonian Associates didn’t want to lose anyone. So although a few hardy souls did wade out about 30 feet, with the water up to their chests, the river crossing was canceled.

Smithsonian Associates members and non-members will have to wait until the last Saturday in August 2019 for a chance to wade across the Potomac in the footsteps of Confederate officers and soldiers. “It’s worth it,” said King, who was not on her first visit to White’s Ford and has waded across the river in years when Maryland and Virginia had normal levels of precipitation. “It gives you a vivid picture of what they went through back then,” King said, adding that the water came up to her waist the year she crossed. “If you like learning by doing, Smithsonian Associates is the way to go.”

In the meantime, Smithsonian Associates offers numerous other activities, including a four-part series on spies and insurgents who got caught, a tour of Arlington National Cemetery that focuses on Latino service members and a two-hour walk in the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle to soak up the Japanese tradition of “urban forest bathing,” all of which take place in October.

There’s also a nature walk in November on Theodore Roosevelt Island near Reagan National Airport, an eight-session weekend on-location photography course or a visit in early December to New York’s Radio City Music Hall to take in a Christmas show.  

The Museums

Seventeen of the Smithsonian museums are in Washington, D.C. — 11 of them on the National Mall — and are free of charge to visitors.

c1.edu.smithsonian.group.storyThe newest of the D.C. museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has, until recently, always required timed entry passes, which have to be obtained well in advance.

But after welcoming 3.5 million visitors since it opened in September 2016 — 2.4 million of them in 2017, making it the fourth-most visited museum in the Smithsonian family — the museum launched a pilot program in April and May 2018 called walk-up Wednesdays where visitors could enter the popular museum on a first-come, first-served basis in the middle of the work week. That program was rolled out again in September and extended to include all weekdays. The results of the pilot programs will be analyzed after September. Advance passes for October, November and December have already been distributed.  

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, located on the National Mall, is the most popular museum of the Smithsonian family, welcoming 7 million visitors in 2017. Its sibling, the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, was the sixth-most visited Smithsonian museum, with 1.6 million people. Both offer IMAX movies and flight simulators (for a fee), where aspiring pilots can see if they have the stomach for loop-de-loops.

Udvar-Hazy has the added attraction of housing the space shuttle Discovery, which moved into its new home after flying into Dulles on the back of a modified Boeing 747 in 2012. Hundreds of people packed into the grounds of the Udvar-Hazy center, and Washingtonians, Virginians and Marylanders — and doubtless many foreign visitors who were lucky enough to be in D.C. that day — stopped on highways and in parking lots to watch as the shuttle flew over D.C. before landing at Dulles on April 12, 2012. From Dulles, the shuttle was wheeled oh-so-slowly to its new home in a hangar at Udvar-Hazy. The massive center is also home to the Concorde and the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The downtown Air and Space Museum is much easier to get to than Udvar-Hazy, which is a bus ride away from Dulles or the Wiehle-Reston station on the silver line of the Metro. Udvar-Hazy also has ample parking, but it costs $15 before 4 p.m. After that, it’s free — and the museum is open until 5:30 p.m., leaving plenty of time to see the shuttle and get in a simulator ride.

For those who prefer the old-fashioned experience of looking at artwork instead of simulating flight, the Smithsonian museums are offering an eclectic mix of exhibitions this fall.

The recently renovated Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries are featuring two complementary exhibitions on Japanese photography and prints, examining how groundbreaking Japanese artists sought to document their rapidly changing nation.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Art is hosting the first comprehensive survey of British sculptor Rachel Whiteread with 100 objects that chart the seismic changes in how we live, from the late 20th century and into the 21st.

c1.edu.smithsonian.culture.carver.storyAnd the National Museum of African Art is exploring the beauty and complexity of Senegalese fashion and jewelry in “Good as Gold (also see our monthly Events Calendar for a complete listing of international happenings around town).

Culture Vultures

The Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is best known for its annual Folklife Festival, which runs for two weeks in June and July on the National Mall. An “exercise in cultural democracy, equity, and diplomacy,” the 2018 festival shone a spotlight on artisans, performers, winemakers and more from Armenia and Catalonia (also see “From Bread to Fire, 2018 Folklife Festival Offers Taste of Armenia and Catalonia” in the July 2018 issue).

In 2019, the theme of the festival will be the social power of music. Although we haven’t been able to confirm the line-up for next year, we at The Washington Diplomat are hoping it includes Estonia, where song was central to the peaceful protests that ended the long Soviet occupation in 1991, and South Africa, where music played a major role in the anti-apartheid movement.

While the festival may be the visible face of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the center has many hidden jewels, including exhibitions, recordings, documentary films and an archive collection of ethnographic and cultural heritage research. It also produces an online magazine that takes readers deep into the hidden workings of Washington and other destinations. The Folklife magazine featured an article in August on Stewart Stevens Sr., the man who cleaned the White House chandeliers for every president from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush.

The Food

You don’t have to gaze at museum exhibits to make the most of the Smithsonian Institution. Federal and other workers in D.C. have long trekked to the Mitsitam Native Foods Café in the National Museum of the American Indian for lunch. But Mitsitam took a hit last year when Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema gave it a paltry half-star rating in his spring 2017 dining guide. When Sietsema visited, Mitsitam ran out of salmon and what they had was akin to the tinned variety, only drier. There were also too many steak knives and not enough forks, and the Peruvian chicken lacked seasoning.

c1.edu.smithsonian.food2.storyMany visitors still rave about Mitsitam, though. In a five-star review on TripAdvisor, Noelle C. called the café “an awesome place to stop in and eat” and counseled even those who weren’t planning to go to the museum itself to “definitely try the amazing cuisine to be had here.” Another reviewer who gave the restaurant top marks said eating at Mitsitam is “part of the visitor experience” and gave a few pointers and background information on the museum cafeteria.

“The food offered comes from the Americas with recipes using only ingredients found in the Americas before … 1492,” wrote edisonw639. “The food stations are segmented by region like Pacific Northwest, Plains, MesoAmerica, Woodlands which offer delicious dishes from those specific areas. My favorite side dish is turkey with wild rice, watercress & cranberries and the elk steak cooked to order. The service is cafeteria style with a tray. I highly suggest visiting early in the week and before 12 noon to avoid crowds.”

The most common complaint about Mitsitam is the price. One reviewer said a meal at the cafeteria set them back as much as a sit-down dinner in a restaurant. Main courses can run around $20. Mitsitam (it means “let’s eat”) ranks 361st out of 3,545 restaurants in Washington on TripAdvisor.

Usurping Mitsitam as the go-to Smithsonian dining spot on the Mall is Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Sweet Home’s executive chef Jerome Grant used to be at Mitsitam, in fact, and some blame the Native American Museum café’s downslide on his departure to the African American Museum’s café.

TripAdvisor reviewer ElkayEZ gave Sweet Home Café three stars for value and five for its food offerings. “I was initially told to visit this museum purely for the food,” she wrote on TripAdvisor in August 2018. “I thoroughly enjoyed the entire museum but definitely loved the food. There was a long line but it moves fairly quickly. The menu items are divided into cultural sections, ‘Creole Coast,’ ‘Northern States.’ ‘Agricultural South’ and ‘Western Range.’ I opted for the Creole Coast offering of Duck, Andouille & Crawfish Gumbo and it did not disappoint! I splurged on bread pudding for dessert. Worth the price and the line, to me!”

Another TripAdvisor reviewer urged people in search of a meal on the Mall to not be put off by the long lines to get into the museum and café. “Anyone who has gone to museums will know that most of the food in museums are not the best fare and generally have slim pickings for variety. Not so with Sweet Home Café. They have a huge selection, several buffet lines with good — what appears to be — home cooking. I have no fantasy that it is … but it is very good in comparison to other museums. We went for lunch here and were somewhat dismayed by the long, long lines to just get in. However, the line moved fast and we waited at most 20 minutes.” Sweet Home Café is ranked 319th out of 3,545 restaurants in Washington, D.C., on TripAdvisor.

If you’d rather learn about food than taste it (although you can still do that, too), then check out the fourth annual “Smithsonian Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined” from Nov. 1 to 3 hosted by the National Museum of American History. Over the course of three days, the festival will explore the history and changing dynamics of regional food cultures in the United States with a bevy of celebrity chefs, cooking demonstrations, dance performances and a black-tie gala.


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on October 3, 2018