WASHINGTON – A common refrain among visitors to the nation’s capital is,“I want to see the Smithsonian today.” Many of these time-pressed tourists don’t realize that the world-famous institution is composed of 17 distinct museums,however. To try to see them all in one day would be impossible!
Or would it?
We decided to find out. Seven journalism interns from the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire set out Monday to visit each of the 17 Smithsonian museums during normal operating hours. (We briefly considered incorporating the two Smithsonian properties in New York,but the laws of physics advised against it.)
With 15 minutes allotted to each museum,we hoped we could see some collection highlights,pop into the gift shop and speak with other visitors before racing to the next one. Using cameras,Twitter,Foursquare check-ins,and good old pen and paper,the intern team of Danielle Alberti,Lindsey Erdody,Kevin Heim,Rebecca Koenig,Michael Stainbrook,Nadia Tamez-Robledo and Jorge Valens,documented the entire adventure.
Ten hours,77 miles,and 17 museums later,we proudly present: the Smithsonian Institution Sprint.
View Smithsonian Museums in a larger map
8:45 a.m. Fueled by coffee,we piled into two hourly rental Zipcars in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood. With printed-out Google maps and smart phone navigation programs at the ready,we embarked on our self-assigned mission.
9:45 a.m. The trip to the Anacostia Community Museum was harrowing for our drivers,inexperienced with navigating the sharp turns of the Rock Creek Parkway and the construction-clogged downtown arteries. It was with relief when we parked in the quiet museum lot in Southeast Washington and bounded toward the entrance,readying ourselves for the first stop on our imposing itinerary.
Spokeswoman Marcia Burris opened the doors promptly at 10 a.m. and welcomed us. Aware we had just 15 minutes to spend at the institution,she and a docent took us on a quick tour of the Word,Shout,Song exhibit,a temporary collection about the life and work of African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. We barely had time to race through the Separate but Unequaled gallery about Washington’s black baseball team before it was time to go. With reluctance to leave the lovely gallery and many unanswered questions,we hit the road.
11:40 a.m. A traffic-jammed drive on Interstate 66 took us to Virginia and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center,a branch of the National Air and Space Museum. With the artistic rendering of a runway and jet contrail outside its impressive glassy frame and commercial airplanes flying low overhead,a tourist could easily mistake the museum for its neighbor,Washington Dulles International Airport.
The view overlooking the hangar was truly awesome: Dozens of aircraft suspended from the ceiling hover just beyond reach. Fifteen minutes afforded time to see the Blackbird spy plane and the Enterprise test space shuttle,lurking in the back of the museum like a great white shark.
1:04 p.m. Getting back downtown required a long drive on the Dulles Toll Road,during which we scarfed down our brown-bag lunches and paid $2 in tolls. After returning the Zipcars,we raced a few blocks to the National Zoo,where panda-sighting was our priority. We snapped a quick photo of the cuddly beast and took off.
1:59 p.m. A short walk from the Zoo took us to the Woodley Park Metro station,where we caught a red line train heading toward Union Station. Next door is the National Postal Museum,and after going through our first real security checkpoint of the day,we took the elevator down to the exhibit floor. We had just enough time to find Amelia Earhart’s stamp collection and learn about Owney,the canine mascot of the rail mail service.
2:34 p.m. Another red line train brought us to the Farragut North Metro station and the Renwick Gallery. Housed in a beautiful second-empire red brick building,the museum is stuffed with decorative arts,which we merely got to sample. Leaving behind the intricately detailed silver and ponder-worthy contemporary crafts,we started to realize just how insufficient a quarter of an hour is to see a Smithsonian collection.
3:07 p.m. Hopping on the orange line at the Farragut West stop,we rode to the National Mall,Washington’s museum mecca. It was daunting to step off the escalator knowing we had to conquer each of the huge looming buildings. The Freer and
Arthur M. Sackler art galleries,conveniently connected by an underground tunnel,were up first,and we sopped up as many Asian pots as we could in our allotted time.
3:37 p.m. The National Museum of African Art is tucked behind the Freer and the Sackler and next to the pretty Enid A. Haupt Garden. We spread out to find masks,mosaics and modern sculptures throughout the subterranean gallery.
3:53 p.m. Iconic though it may be,there’s not much to see in the Smithsonian Castle. We poked our heads in to see the tomb of the institution’s founder,James Smithson,feeling a little guilty to be rushing through his legacy.
4:05 p.m. Taking a much needed whimsical break,a few of us climbed aboard the working antique carousel outside the Arts and Industries Building. The museum is closed for renovations,but the carousel is considered part of its collection so we rationalized our ride as a museum visit.
4:16 p.m. The mysteries of the Hirshhorn Museum collection were a little too much for our tired minds to comprehend,but we enjoyed the colorful abstract paintings anyway. Playing with the funky findings in the gift shop was another highlight of the doughnut-shaped museum.
4:47 p.m. We passed by the Air and Space Museum,which stays open until 7:30 p.m. during the summer,to take in the National Museum of the American Indian before its 5:30 p.m. closing time. Feeling confident that we had plenty of time to finish the remaining four museums,after looking at buckskin clothing pieces and an exhibit of contemporary Hawaiian art,we sampled the tasty fry bread in the museum restaurant,the Mitsitam Café.
5:14 p.m. Rockets and the Wright Brothers dominated our visit to the Air and Space Museum,which was packed with people. It felt a little redundant after seeing the Udvar-Hazy Center earlier in the day,but the space enthusiasts among us enjoyed the exhibit snippets we saw nonetheless.
5:34 p.m. As we wearily crossed the Mall to reach the National Museum of Natural History and checked our watches,we started to regret our fry bread break. A frustratingly long line through the security checkpoint and a scolding by a guard for trying to switch lines did nothing to lighten the mood. Finding the Hope Diamond in the sea of tourists took most of our time,but we managed to take in a few mammals on the way out the door.
5:51 p.m. Luckily,the Star-Spangled Banner is right inside the main entrance of the National Museum of American History. The stars and stripes looked as worn as we felt,and the cool dark exhibit space was so soothing we were tempted to lie down on the benches and stay there until closing time. But we were so close to finishing our mission,and,filled with renewed patriotism,we pressed on.
6:26 p.m. The walk up F Street to the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery was more of a limp than a victory lap,but as the marble columns came into view,we quickened our pace and practically collapsed through the doors into air-conditioned glory. It was hard to tell whether it was Mary Cassatt’s impressionism or our exhaustion that blurred our vision as we explored our final two collections. When he learned of our nearly completed adventure,a wise security guard called us crazy before leading us to Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Fifteen minutes before closing time,we sat on the museum steps,basking in our success and lamenting our tired feet.
Can you visit every Smithsonian museum in one day? Yes.
Do we recommend it? Not really.
A sprint through all 17 simply does not do them justice. With millions of stunning art pieces and artifacts,airplanes and animals in their collections,these museums are designed to reward the diligent visitor who takes time to savor them. While our race through the Smithsonian did not allow us to enjoy the wealth of the exhibits,it did expose us to lesser-known museums and whet our appetites for return visits. When our blisters have healed and our brains have cleared,we will be back on the museum trail,experiencing the galleries as they were created: with care.
Reach reporter Rebecca Koenig at [email protected] or 202-326-9867
Map by Danielle Alberti and Nadia Tamez-Robledo
SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.