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Insider Tips for the Tourists in Town

Think you know all of the cool sights on the Mall? We bet you'll find these insider tips from the Institution helpful this tourist season.

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The Mother Ship Model, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” is on display in the Rockets and Missiles exhibition station at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. Image courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.

During the summer, the National Mall transforms into a lively gaggle of families: kids, covered in a fresh coat of sunblock, moms and dads with maps in hand. Tourist season is in full-swing. And while you’ve got 19 museums to choose from and a list of “Greatest Hits”available starting July 1st in our new goSmithsonian Visitor’s Guide, there are more things to look out for, hiding in plain sight. Here are a few insider tips to know:

National Air and Space Museum

In the climax of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Mother Ship rises over Devil’s Tower, casting an ominous shadow over all other alien thrillers that preceded. The ship came back to earth when Columbia Pictures donated the model to the Smithsonian in 1979. Housed in the Rockets and Missiles exhibition at the Udvar-Hazy Center, you can safely explore the Mother Ship model, which was built from toy train kits. The team of model-makers stuck in a few inside jokes, too. Two small sharks are tucked deep inside the model as a wink to Spielberg’s earlier film Jaws. A small R2-D2 figure perches on the underside of the ship, placed there by special effects guru Dennis Muren, who had just finished work on Star Wars. See if you can spot the Volkswagen bus parked under an eave, the small cemetery inside the front lip or the mailbox and World War II airplanes that piggyback the ship’s hull.

Museum of Natural History

From the balcony, look up into the vitrine. You’ll see the cast of a dinosaur skull—one that used to be in the office of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

National Postal Museum

One insider tip about the Postal Museum involves the outside of the building. The Postal Square Building that houses the museum was designed by Daniel Burnham, an architect of Chicago’s World Fair of 1893. Burnham later became the subject of the popular novel Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness.

The Postal Museum also has a famous puppy pal, named Owney. He may be stuffed, but he’s been all over the world—he’s even met the emperor of Japan. This Terrier-mix was adopted by postal employees in New York State and traveled for nine years, riding the rails until his death in 1897. He became the unofficial mascot for the U.S. Railway Mail Service. On your way to see Owney in the museum’s atrium, be sure to look down—the floor tiles are in the shape of envelopes and stamped letters.

National Zoo

If you like adorable baby animals, the Bird House is the place to be. The Zoo announced a few birdy additions last week: Two burrowing owl babies hatched on May 24, and more recently, two kori bustards entered the world on June 9 and 10.  Although the kori chicks will not be on exhibit until late August, Zoo visitors can see their parents at the kori bustard exhibit, located outside of the Bird House.

National Museum of American History

Head to the third floor and check out the Dolls’ House. This is no ordinary dollhouse, either. When Faith Bradford, a retired librarian, donated the 23-room, five-story dwelling furnished with 1,354, 20th-century vintage items, a miniature world was created. The details in the dollhouse are nothing to sniff at. Bradford has a family of dolls inhabiting her artwork: A father, mother, their 10 children, 20 pets, a household staff and even their in laws. Come back during the holiday season too, for a tradition Bradford started long ago. Each December, the whimsical house is decorated with mini-holiday decorations: tiny presents, ornaments—even a train set is placed meticulously throughout the house. And get this, the decorations are all stored in the attic during the rest of the year.

American Art Museum

Travel to the third floor and you’ll find Woman Eating, an amazingly-life-like sculpture that will certainly stop you in your tracks. But that’s not the coolest part. Scrawled on the wall nearby are the initials “C.H.F.” and a date “Aug. 8, 1864.” The museum used to be a Civil War infirmary and though it’s not confirmed, it is likely that the etching was left by a patient.

Museum of the American Indian

The Charles Ross’ Prism/Solar Spectrum installation in the south-facing window of the Potomac Atrium is something you simply cannot miss. Light from the sun shines through eight prisms, casting beautiful beams onto the atrium’s floor. If you missed the rainbow display during the summer solstice, when the Earth tilts closest toward the sun, you can read about the unique way the colors stack in a straight line on the floor of the Potomac here.

Additional reporting done by Aviva Shen. For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide.

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About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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