"America on the Move"

"America on the Move," on transportation's history, is at the National Museum of American History. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / January 8, 2004)

The nation's attic sits in a cluster of buildings around the National Mall in Washington.

Founded more than 155 years ago, the Smithsonian Institution was the dream of Englishman James Smithson. Upon his death in 1829, Smithson willed his fortune to the United States to fund "an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge." Today, the Smithsonian's 16 museums attract nearly 25 million visitors annually, many from overseas.

From Baltimore, the Smithsonian is an easy day trip you can make again and again. (With more than 143 million artifacts from this country and well beyond, there's no way to see it all in one day.)

To help plan your visit, we've focused on the nine museums easily accessible from the Mall.

And we'll let you in on a little secret that those in the know told us: January and February tend to be the best months to visit the Smithsonian. The winter weather keeps away a lot of visitors -- and it's the lull before the spring invasion by school kids from across the country.

Before you go

Admission to these museums is free. They are generally open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. every day. The Smithsonian Information Center ("the Castle") opens at 9 a.m. daily. Most museums offer a guided highlights tour. Check at the information desk in each museum for more information. For general information, call 202-357-2700 unless otherwise noted. Don't underestimate how much walking you will do. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes.

When you go

The National Museum of American History (Constitution Avenue at 14th Street Northwest): From the beginnings of a fledgling nation to the almost daily technological innovations that help us grow, the American History Museum looks at the country's times, good and bad. Cultural artifacts exhibited here include Julia Child's kitchen, the first ladies' dresses and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." A simple clapboard house from Massachusetts tells the story of the five families who lived there in the 200 years from Colonial days to World War II.

Also on exhibit is On Stage and Back Stage: Women in Jazz. Relive the big events of the transportation age in America on the Move, which looks at planes, trains and automobiles and the role they've played in our world. Extensive collections of money, musical instruments and textiles are also on display.

The National Museum of Natural History (Constitution Avenue at 10th Street Northwest): Home of the famous Hope Diamond as well as a vast number of other artifacts, the Natural History Museum covers just about every aspect of the natural world. Open since 1910, it houses more than 125 million specimens in galleries that laid end-to-end would cover more than 18 football fields.

The new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals focuses on 274 mammals -- including humans -- and how each species has changed over 210 million years. Another exhibit, Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs, offers samples of 100 years of photography. Also popular right now is America's Wildest Places: Our National Wildlife Refuge System.

The National Air and Space Museum (Independence Avenue at 4th Street Southwest): The Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module -- the list of artifacts at the Air and Space Museum is long. Visitors can touch a real moon rock and ride in a flight simulator. Gallery after gallery holds items related to nearly every aeronautical achievement this country has made.

A century after the Wright Brothers' historic flight, a current exhibit looks at their lives, their achievements and exactly what their technical breakthrough has come to mean to this country and the world. Since space remains the unconquered frontier, space travel tends to be at the forefront of many recently developed museum exhibits. Artifacts related to the Hubble space telescope, the space stations and missions to Mars are featured.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue at 7th Street Southwest, 202-633-4674): The Smithsonian's museum of modern art has long been known for its exhibit of mobiles by Alexander Calder and its collection of pop art showcasing Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud and Claes Oldenburg. The Hirshhorn also offers works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Christo, Juan Munoz and others. If you're not familiar with modern art, the museum offers tours and information to guide you, including a brochure specifically designed for families.

The National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Ave. S.W., 202-357-4600): Masks, figurative sculptures, ceramics and metalwork as well as the utilitarian objects of everyday life such as bowls, chairs and more are featured in the museum's permanent collection of contemporary and traditional art. A highlight is The Ancient West African City of Benin From 1300 to 1897 A.D. -- a collection of artifacts from the royal court of the kingdom of Benin before British colonial rule was imposed on the empire. The museum's Warren M. Robbins Library is open to the public by appointment only, but it's worth calling ahead to schedule a visit.

The National Museum of Arts and Industries (900 Jefferson Drive S.W.): Closed for renovation.

The Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Jefferson Drive at 12th Street Southwest/1050 Independence Ave. S.W., 202-633-4080): Connected by an underground exhibition area and served by the same staff and a single director, these two galleries are considered the unofficial national museum of Asian art.

The Freer's collection includes works from China, Japan, Korea and Near Eastern nations. It is also home to an extensive collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler, including an elaborately decorated room Whistler designed in London that was shipped here after the owner's death.

The Sackler offers a large display of Asian artifacts as well as a collection of Islamic, Indian, Japanese and Korean pieces. Current exhibits at the two galleries include prints by Whistler, who was a master of that art though he was much better known for his oil paintings, and a collection of 15th- to 17th-century illustrated manuscripts of lyrical poetry from Persia.

The Smithsonian Institution Building (1000 Jefferson Drive S.W., 202-633-1000): "The Castle" is the earliest building on the Mall, dating to 1847. Built of red sandstone and renovated at various points, it was home to the first secretary of the Smithsonian as well as the museum itself. This first exhibit hall opened in 1858 and didn't close until the 1960s. Today, the Castle serves as the Smithsonian's information center. A free 24-minute orientation video is shown in two theaters. There are electronic maps of the area and a scale model of the Mall and its monuments. Information on daily Smithsonian events is also available.

Where to eat

American History, Natural History, and Air and Space have self-service cafes. The Commons in the Castle serves Sunday brunch. Call 202-371-1083 for reservations.

Getting there

The easiest way to get to Washington is to drive to an outlying station of the Washington subway and take the Metro to the Smithsonian, Federal Triangle or the L'Enfant Plaza stations. For more information on fares and parking, visit www.wmata.com.