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A Bit about the Smithsonian Institution
A Kingdom of Antiquarian Delights
By Luna Lark
Museums are magical places. With the mere glimpse of the right artifact, you're whisked off to the past. Different artifacts enchant different people, but once you find the perfect one for you, you're transported to a time and place you've always longed to visit. The more varied a museum's collection, the more opportunities it has to indulge your imagination. In the case of the Smithsonian Institution, the opportunities for such mental stimulation are incomparable. With 19 museums and 168 affiliate museums in 39 states across the U.S., a visit to the Smithsonian means your brain is constantly at the mercy of tantalizing treasures.
Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Depending on where you live, the Smithsonian may just be a short trip or something of a journey from your home, but, either way, the travel options abound. Plane, train, bus, and Metro—count your geeky stars that the Smithsonian's located in a prominent metropolitan area. The majority of the Smithsonian's museums lie in Washington, D.C. There you will also find its world-renowned zoo and nine research centers.
Quail Bell fledglings will particularly love the Smithsonian's folklore and history museums:
To find out more about the Smithsonian and see some oddities on 18th century-style display, start off with the Smithsonian Institution Building. Many Washingtonians refer to it as The Castle because of its distinctive architecture. This beautiful information center features a permanent exhibit called “Smithsonian Institution: America's Treasure Chest,” a video orientation, a scale model of D.C., and Castle Café.
Another must-see is the National Museum of American History. The National Museum of American History exhibits exactly what you would think—artifacts that represent major milestones in the history of the United States. Highlights include the original Star Spangled Banner Flag, Kermit the Frog, Edison's light bulb, Julia Child's kitchen, the Clara Barton Red Cross ambulance, John Bull locomotive, and inaugural gowns worn by First Ladies of the United States. If that list doesn't excite you, something else at the museum surely will.
For an alternate version of American history, check out the National Museum of the American Indian. The National Museum of the American Indian pays tribute to each of the tribes found in North and South America. Whether you're interested in language, traditional dress, or hunting, this museum shows you how various indigenous peoples have thrived and survived through the ages. A large performance space—used primarily for pow-wows and other cultural demonstrations--makes up the heart of the museum's first floor.
Visit the National Museum of African Art for an overview of African peoples' creation legacy. Multiple masks, figurines, and ceremonial objects from nations across the continent make up the museum's collection. The National Museum of African Art regularly hosts tours, film screenings, and artist interviews, as well.
Meanwhile, the Freer and Sackler Galleries specialize in Asian art. This includes not only oriental work, but also American work heavily influenced by Asian styles and techniques. You will also find work from the Near East, like Ancient Egypt and the Islamic world. The museum is best known for the “Whistler Room,” created by 19th-century artist James McNeill Whistler.
If you prefer natural wonders over man-made ones, visit the National Museum of Natural History. You can see dinosaur skeletons, precious stones, models of Neanderthals, and a copper mummy all under the same roof. Their insect zoo, which features live specimens and child-friendly exhibits, is especially popular with families.
Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in Washington during the summer, make time for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. This multi-day event educates visitors about far-flung lands through live music, food concessions, craft demonstrations, and a marketplace. Thousands of people from across the globe flock to the Folklife Festival every year.
Now, like a diligent fledgling, you should figure out when you go to Washington, D.C. Thanks to the Smithsonian, it's hard to find so much institutionalized folklore in any other place.
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