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DC’s Museum Life: Venture Outside the Smithsonian

If Washington DC does one thing correctly, it’s museums, many of which are free to the public. Because of this privilege, tourists and Washingtonians alike tend to turn their backs on many of the museums that fall outside of the Smithsonian or charge a fee, and therefore many experiences less foot traffic. However, whether they charge an entrance fee or not, many of these museums have a unique subject matter or purpose that more than makes up for the admission fee or the fact that the museums may be on a smaller scale.

If you’re exploring DC on a budget and looking for a lesser-known landmark, we encourage you to check out the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, founded and established by the National Bonsai Association, in combination with the National Arboretum, and located on the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. This museum promotes the art of bonsai and penjing, and other related artforms to its visitors through elaborate displays and educational programs. The Holocaust Museum, which is one of the more famous non-Smithsonian museums and educates millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide, as well as shares the tragic history of the Holocaust.

Dumbarton Oaks, a research library and collection that’s located on Georgetown, also is home to a museum with a world-class collection of art. This collection also welcomes researchers of all experience levels to utilize its extensive collections. While the museum itself is free, you may find it hard to resist a trip to the extensive on-site gardens, which do have a ticket fee of $7. If you have further interest in art, you may want to visit the National Gallery of Art. This museum is home to over 150,000 sculptures, decorative arts, prints, drawings, photographs, and paintings, and features popular works such as “Tomorrow I May Be Fair” by Romare Bearden, “A Poet Reading” by Master of the Playing Cards, and “David With The Head of Goliath” by Andrea del Castagno.

Many of the museums in the DC area that charge an admission fee is because they are a smaller organization that does not receive federal funding. For example, the National Building Museum, while the historic building it’s located in is supported by the Federal Government, the museum is supported by individual ticket fees, corporations, and foundations. This museum is best known for its elaborate immersive or interactive displays such as The Wall/ El Muro, which is an immersive exhibit about the US-Mexico Border Wall. Another one of it’s more popular exhibits, which is now closed, was The Beach, an interactive installation which had the goal of bringing the experience of going to the beach to downtown Washington, D.C.

If you’re looking to support smaller museums that hold a place in DC’s history, you may want to head to the Heurich House Museum. This mansion has a deep history in DC’s interior decorating and technological, as well as beer production advancements. Today, the museum works to “bridge Heurich’s world with modern DC” through events meant to enrich the community through events like their 1921 Biergarten, which is similar to a modern-day happy hour, where the museum features local craft beer, cocktails and wine from the area’s best beverage producers. Additionally, in December, the museum’s garden plays host to the Christmas Markt, whose recent year’s goal is “to create a more equitable future for local small-scale entrepreneurs, who are historically women, people of color, and immigrants, and who have been affected deeply by the pandemic. This program is part of our core mission and is rooted in historic brewer Christian Heurich’s legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy.”

Many of the museums listed above, while not under the umbrella of the Smithsonian, do have individuals who put lots of work and time into ensuring a positive museum going experience for everyone. We encourage anyone who has the time or financial capacity to visit and support these important DC institutions!

Cover photo courtesy of:

“About.” Heurich House Museum, Accessed 6 May 2022.

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