Explore Washington, D.C. From Home With This Free, Smithsonian Scholar-Led Tour

Narrated by Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Richard Kurin, the 24-part video series blends history with modern mainstays

U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Nicolas Raymond via Flickr under CC BY-2.0

Over the course of a typical year, more than 20 million tourists flock to Washington, D.C. to soak in the city’s sights. 2020, of course, is no typical year. But thanks to a new online project, the world’s history buffs can embark on a guided tour of the nation’s capital from the comfort of their own homes.

On-demand video service the Great Courses has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to offer its Great Tours: Washington, D.C. series for free, bringing a vital piece of United States history to those sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Featuring monuments, memorials, museums and other D.C. highlights, the 24-part compendium is half lecture, half interactive experience. It comes complete with quizzes, reader polls, maps, and—for the particularly knowledge-hungry—suggestions for further online exploration.

At the fore of the tour is guide Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist and the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large. Beginning with the backstory of Washington, D.C.’s founding in 1790, Kurin narrates the city’s transformation into a cultural epicenter, including the purposeful split that sectored it into its four famous quadrants.

The Great Tours: Washington DC | How Washington DC Came to Be (Part 1/24)

The series then winds its way through several of the capital’s most prominent political and historical mainstays (like the White House and the Library of Congress), weaving in the wars that reshaped the city and its residents along the way. Also profiled are some of the properties linked to two of the nation’s best-known presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; the extraordinary stories of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and sites associated with the birth of the civil rights movement.

Next, Kurin walks viewers through the founding and construction of various museums and monuments, as narrated by commentary from several special guests. In Lecture 11, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch discusses the vision and drive that led to the founding of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016.

Reflecting on the museum’s mission, Bunch, its founding director, says, “I really felt that in some ways, it could be a model … [proving that] anybody that’s perceived as the outsider suddenly ought to claim their Americanism.”

At the National Zoo, Deputy Director Brandie Smith spotlights panda Bei Bei, who was born at the institution in summer 2015. Though Bei Bei left the Smithsonian for China in November 2019 as a part of the two nations’ panda diplomacy program, the zoo still houses his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. As Smith explains, the dynamic duo is well worth a visit.

“There is literally a biochemical release when people glimpse creatures like pandas,” she says in the video. “Watching pandas makes you a better, more empathetic person.”

The Great Tours: Washington DC | Museums on the Mall: Smithsonian and Beyond (Part 13/24)

The series then takes a brief dip into the darker side of the city, touching upon such scandals as Watergate, the Teapot Dome and the many controversies surrounding President Ulysses S. Grant. But Kurin soon pivots viewers back to the capital’s gems, concluding with an overview of the attractions of modern D.C., from the culinary to the outdoorsy.

The finale of the series (spoiler alert) swivels the lens toward the city’s future—and reminds virtual visitors that history is also a deeply personal experience. Washington, D.C., which Kurin describes as its own living textbook, does more than offer “lessons and insights into who we are as a nation,” he says in the final installment of the series. Those touring the city, whether in person or from afar, are often able to trace their cultural lineages backward in time. History, Kurin suggests, isn’t something that’s passively observed, but actively experienced and lived by each person who walks the Earth.

“All of those experiencing Washington find inspiration and connection in this capital city,” he says.

As a part of the Smithsonian’s partnership with Great Courses, Kurin will also be hosting a Facebook Live event in which he’ll discuss how museums and researchers are faring amid the pandemic. Tune in at 12 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow, Tuesday, April 21.

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