Insider Visitor Tips for the Holiday Weekend

Must-see exhibits, little known facts and veteran visitor wisdom for your Thanksgiving weekend at the Smithsonian

The Sant Ocean Hall
The Sant Ocean Hall at the Natural History Museum is just one of the many attractions to be enjoyed this holiday weekend. Photo by Chip Clark. Courtesy of the Smithsonian

If you think your house is going to be packed for Thanksgiving, imagine the crowds at a Smithsonian museum. According to the Washington Post, the museums had 418, 000 visitors over the holiday weekend in 2010. Though that number dipped in 2011, the institution is still gearing up for a full house.

To help visitors navigate their way through the 19 museums and National Zoo, Smithsonian will be fielding questions before and during the holiday on its Twitter page. Just follow @smithsonian and use the hashtag “#TgivingVisitTips” to stay up to date. Veteran visitors will also post their own tips with the hashtag, including, “1) eat at@SmithsonianNMAI 2) take a pic at @NMAAHC site for posterity 3) comfy shoes” by Erin Blasco.

Here are some of our own insider tips, from our Greatest Hits guide (now available on your smart phone!):

Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle: Your first stop for all things Smithsonian, the Castle is home to the information center where you can scope out all the current exhibits around the Mall, including the Castle’s own exhibit, “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront.” You can also pay your respects to the founder, James Smithson, who lies at rest in the crypt in the building’s foyer.

National Portrait Gallery: With several new exhibits and a host of permanent favorites, there’s plenty to take in at the gallery (like Alexander Gardner’s famous cracked glass plate portrait of Abraham Lincoln), including the building itself. On the third floor in the Great Hall, is an architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed. The yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows in the octagonal dome, dating to 1885, cast lush hues on sunny days.

American Art Museum: Housed in the same building as NPG, is the American Art Museum, which just opened its splendid new exhibit “The Civil War and American Art,” which is sure to draw crowds. The museum even had its own role in the Civil War: On the third floor near the Woman Eating sculpture, the initials C.H.F. are scrawled on the wall. The work of some hipster tagger? No, the graffiti artist also put a date: “Aug. 8, 1864.” Likely it was left by a patient; the building was a Civil War infirmary.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Not quite on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center (in Chantilly, Virginia—near Dulles Airport) is home to a world-famous collection of aircraft a space vehicles, including the Air France Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. After seeing those beauties, tell the kids to check this out. Look for seven hidden oddities in the model of the mother ship made from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These were internal Hollywood jokes that weren’t part of the script. Hint: One is R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars.

Air and Space Museum: The world’s most-visited museum, Air and Space has everything from moon rocks to the Wright flyer. But how did they get it all in there? Look closely at the large window on the west side of the building. The glass slide away like giant garage doors.

American History Museum: Next up from the big three, American History, where even celebrities like Parks and Rec‘s Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) like to hang out. In addition to the brand new exhibit “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ with Julia Child’s kitchen, you’ll also want to stop by the first floor for the Dolls’ House. Inside the house, inhabited by Peter Doll and his family, Christmas decorations are kept in the attic. Each holiday season, curators retrieve the tiny tree and wreaths and decorate the house.

Anacostia Community Museum: After an extensive research process, the museum recently opened its exhibit “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” as part of its efforts to reach out to the community. Comparing waterways in L.A., Pittsburgh, Louisville, London, Shanghai and here in D.C., the exhibit is full of artworks and informative displays. Check out the playful piece Talking Trash, kinetic sculpture of fish made from plastic water bottles.

Natural History Museum: The grand dame of the big three museum, Natural History is famous partly for housing the “cursed” Hope Diamond. But it’s not all sparkle and shine. Heard of donating your body to science? Professor Grover Krantz volunteered to be put on display at the Smithsonian–with his dog. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead,” he said. Find the pair on the second floor.

American Indian Museum: What better time to visit the American Indian Museum than November, American Indian Heritage Month? In addition to its award-winning cafe and engaging exhibits, it has a treat for those who know where and when to look. Watch for the lovely play of light in the Potomac Atrium. Eight prisms on the south wall project refractions on the floor. See them at the peak of their brilliance between 11 and 2. On the summer and winter solstice, the light lines up precisely.

Freer Gallery: Amid the jades and bronzes from Asia, a fierce fight is playing out. The two birds depicted squawking in battle on the back wall of Whistler’s Peacock Room represent a real-life contretemps between the artist and his patron over a disputed fee for the artwork.

Sackler Gallery: With a new blockbuster exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Sackler is as busy as ever. This year, the Sackler celebrates its 25th anniversary of the 1987 gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a New York City physician.

Hirshhorn Museum: Contemporary art lovers will be filling the circular gallery space to check out Barbara Kruger’s installation and the new exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” But you’ll be headed outside. Ready for a little covert operation? Check out the sculpture Antipodes just outside the front door. The piece has two encoded texts, one related to C.I.A. operations and the other in Cyrillic related to the K.G.B.

Museum of African Art: The current exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” is out of this world, combining science and the arts over time. Our insider tips combines its own bit of science and art. Check out the sculpture of Toussaint Louverture. It is made of a mysterious substance that the artist also used to waterproof his house.

Renwick Gallery: Just a few steps from the White House, the Renwick is a must-see in its own right, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Up the stairs is one of the city’s premier galleries, the Grand Salon, modeled in the French Second Empire style.

National Postal Museum: A stamp collection that can’t be beat, including the first ever U.S. government-issued stamp from 1847, is just the start of the Postal Museum. This building was designed by Daniel Burnham, the protagonist of the best-seller Devil in the White City.

National Zoo: In addition to the cuddly cuties on display, the Zoo is also launching this year’s seasonal display, ZooLights, Friday, November 23. As you wander through the animals, listen for the morning songs of the white-cheeked gibbons. They can be heard up to one mile away.

Don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.

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