Museums in the District
Washington, D.C. has over seventy different museums, but a small handful get most of the attention from tourists. However, if you live in the Metro area, you have probably been to the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art many times on school trips or weekends. If you are looking for something fun and different to do in the District, here is a sample of some lesser-known museums you may not have been to before.
National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
Location: 3501 New York Ave., NE
Times: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily except for national holidays
This museum, part of the National Arboretum, is home to about 150 bonsai and penjing plants situated in three different pavilions. It has a collection of viewing stones (interestingly shaped stones that may be displayed in a scholar’s study) and an exhibition of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. The museum also features several special exhibits at any given time, which may showcase the work of local bonsai masters or highlight specific plants from the museum’s permanent collection.
The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is tranquil and quiet, with very few visitors, especially in the winter. The strolling gardens allow visitors to reflect and meditate. Soft music plays in the International Pavilion, adding to the atmosphere. However, there may be a reason for the lack of crowds. The museum is fairly small, and in the winter, only the International Pavilion, Chinese Pavilion (with some plants from the Japanese Pavilion on display) and the Tropical Conservatory are open. The North American Pavilion and Japanese Pavilion are both closed. It might be better to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in the spring, summer or autumn when more plants are on display and the deciduous trees are not leafless.
Going through the whole museum does not take long, so visitors might consider looking at other parts of the National Arboretum while they are there. The Arboretum is open from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily. Its other attractions include the National Herb Garden and the National Capitol Columns.
National Building Museum
Location: 401 F St., NW
Times: Monday-Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Sunday 11:00 am to 4:00 pm; closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving
Price: $8 for adults, $5 for youth (ages 3-17) and seniors
The National Building Museum celebrates architecture and engineering. Exhibitions include LEGO replicas of buildings from around the world, designs for monuments and other structures that never got built in the District, and collections of architectural photography.
The National Building Museum has lots of exhibits and interactive features, so if you want to see everything, plan on staying a long time. This is a great museum to come to with younger siblings. There are lots of play areas and exhibits geared towards children, but there are also plenty of exhibits that will interest teens and adults.
This museum will probably be a lot more interesting to people who have lived in this area for a long time or are very familiar with the District. Most of the exhibits focus on the District, and if you don’t know the city very well, you will not understand a lot. For example, the un-built Washington exhibit occurring now shows designs for buildings and parks in the District that were never realized. The museum does not do a very good job of comparing the unrealized designs to the actual architecture of the District today. It assumes that you already know what certain buildings and squares look like and that you can mentally compare those images to the alternate designs the exhibit presents. This is frustrating at times even for people who know the city well, and it would be even more frustrating to people less familiar with the District.
The National Building Museum is situated in a historic building that is in itself a stunning piece of architecture. The Great Hall in the center of the museum boasts eight 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns and a central fountain.
If you get hungry, the Firehook Bakery in the museum makes excellent cookies. The gift shop is also worth checking out.
National Museum of African Art
Location: 950 Independence Ave., SW
Times: 10:00 am to 5:30 pm daily; closed on Christmas
The National Museum of African Art seeks to foster an appreciation for art from Africa. Its collections include both traditional African art forms and contemporary works by notable African artists, showcasing a wide variety of artwork from mostly sub-Saharan Africa.
Though it is not a large museum, it would be easy to spend a long time wandering through the exhibits here. To get the most out of this museum, make sure to read the wall plaques and descriptions that accompany each piece of art. Every description is wonderfully detailed and gives a thorough historical and cultural context for the artwork. It might be tempting to breeze through the exhibits and ignore the descriptions, but slowing down and reading the descriptions will give you a deeper appreciation and understanding of African history and culture as well as each individual piece of artwork.
There are fewer interactive elements at this museum than the others, so this is not a good place to bring younger siblings or friends with short attention spans. However, if you really take the time to immerse yourself in the artwork and come ready to learn something new, the National Museum of African Art will prove highly rewarding and fascinating.
Location: 2320 S St., NW
Times: Tuesday-Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Sunday 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm; closed on federal holidays and Christmas Eve
Price: $5 suggested donation
Right now, there is not much to see at the Textile Museum. It is between exhibits, so very few pieces of artwork are on display, and much of the museum is closed off for repainting and renovations. The one exhibit currently on display showcases textiles with images of dragons and sea monsters. The artwork itself is fairly interesting, but the exhibit is small and not very well-designed. An interactive room beyond the exhibit teaches museum visitors about different aspects of textiles–materials that can be used, how colors are made, and so on. This is pretty informative and enjoyable, but again, it is small and not worth spending much time at.
The Textile Museum is probably far more interesting when more exhibits and collections are on display. The next few exhibits open in late March, so consider going to see it then.
The Textile Museum is located near Dupont Circle and Embassy Row, which is a very cool neighborhood to walk around in if you have some spare time after your museum visit. However, the museum is moving to a new location on the George Washington University Foggy Bottom campus in a few years, at which point it will presumably have access to greatly increased exhibition space. Now might not be a great time to visit the Textile Museum, but keep watching the museum in the next few years as it begins to put more artwork on display.