Smithsonian Institution: The World’s Largest Museum Complex

Nineteen!  That is how many museums make up this phenomenal complex known as the Smithsonian Institution.  And, did you know that each and every one of those 19 museums, as well as the zoo, are all free to the public?

Knowing we couldn’t possibly visit them all- or even half of them- in our limited amount of time in D.C., we settled on visiting them in priority order, with the goal of seeing the entire Renwick Gallery first.


This is how their website describes the gallery:

“The Renwick Gallery is located steps from the White House in the heart of historic federal Washington. It became the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft and decorative arts program in 1972.

The Renwick’s Second Empire-style building, a National Historic Landmark, was designed by architect James Renwick Jr. in 1859 and completed in 1874.

The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, features one of the finest collections of American craft in the United States. Its collections, exhibition program and publications highlight the best craft objects and decorative arts from the 19th century to the present. One-of-a-kind pieces created from clay, fiber, glass, metal, and wood from American Art’s permanent collection of contemporary craft are displayed on a rotating basis in the second-floor galleries. Popular works include Larry Fuente’s Game Fish and Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock…”

This gallery was right up our alley; we felt like kids in a candy store when we saw all of the art glass, wood, fiber art, and other mediums we enjoy.  Although we do appreciate fine art, it doesn’t excite either of us in the way craft does.  So, The Renwick Gallery topped our list from the moment we learned about it.

Lucky for us, we arrived in time for a docent-led tour of the gallery.  And, even more lucky for us, we were the only ones to take the tour!  We couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried.

I was so inspired by what we saw, I took several photographs of the pieces; even flash photography was allowed.  “Game Fish” and “Ghost Clock” is not to be missed; check out my photos at: .  I have included photos of the description signs; I think you will find the contents quite interesting.  But, as a teaser, I will include this:


It is NOT as it appears. I would be entertained to no end if the Renwick Gallery would install a video camera and record video of the visitors who walk right by this piece. Who stops to look closer and read the sign? Who walks right by it, like I did, thinking it’s a piece covered in a white sheet, not yet ready for public viewing? Well, doesn’t it look that way? If I had thought otherwise, I would have given it more than just a passing glance. It took Bruce to come after me and ask, “What do you think that piece was that you just passed by?” I replied, “A piece of art in the process of being prepared for viewing. The gallery just set it in place and hasn’t taken the sheet off yet.” Ha! That’s what Bruce thought- until he happened to read the sign. Give up? Hint: It is NOT a sheet; check out my website for more info. and photos.

While you’re at it, check out “Game Fish”; it’s a hoot! Meanwhile, here is another favorite, entitled, “Bureau of Bureaucracy”:


And, of course, our favorite medium, glass:


It was a fabulous exhibit and a gallery not to be missed if American craft is your thing.

If you can’t decide which Smithsonian museums to visit, see the Smithsonian Castle first to learn about the museum complex and see small displays from each of the galleries. It is a gorgeous museum and a good way to get an overview of what Smithsonian has to offer.


The next gallery on our priority list was recommended by David: The American History Museum, located across the Washington Mall from The Castle. This museum is so huge, we knew we couldn’t see it all in the remaining time we had left of the day. So, we, again, set our priorities and high-tailed it straight up to the 3rd floor where we could view an exhibit on First Ladies and present and past Presidents.

On display were several inaugural ball gowns worn by past First Ladies, as well as Michelle Obama. Now, I will be honest in my opinion of the gown worn by our new First Lady on Inauguration Day (and, as it so happens, my birthday). Frankly, I thought it was sort of shapeless and unflattering for such a beautiful and physically fit woman. I am no fashion expert, but she would have looked fabulous in a jewel-toned gown; perhaps in the style of what Juliet Binoche wore in the movie, “Chocolat”; slightly off the shoulder and fitted in the bodice. But, this is what she wore, instead:

This is what Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy wore the night John F. Kennedy was inaugurated:

I am not particularly fond of this gown, either, but Jackie Kennedy looked great in everything she wore, didn’t she?

In addition to inaugural ball gowns, a china set from each of the First Ladies was on exhibit, as well.  I though this one was quite unique:


This belonged to Lucy Webb Hayes, First Lady from 1877 – 1881.

The next exhibit we viewed was of all the past Presidents, including such items as Bill Clinton’s saxophone, campaign buttons, and:


Can you guess who wore this hat?  Right!  Abraham Lincoln!

Before we knew it, the time had come to meet back up with David for our drive back to their home, in Burke, Virginia.  It was such a pleasure spending our evenings with David and Melody; either enjoying her fabulous cooking or treating them to two of their favorite restaurants (Italian and Thai).  Conversation was always flowing between us, because we had so much in common.  David even joked that Melody and I must be twin sisters of different mothers.  And, the guys had a lot in common, as well; both left-brained in the working world, but right-brained when enjoying their interests on their own time.  Both are musicians in classic rock bands and both have other artistic interests; David paints and Bruce is a fused glass artist.  We had a wonderful time getting to know each other better and discussing so many different topics.

Next up:  A tour of the Capitol, a visit next door at the Library of Congress, and a stroll through the Botanic Gardens.

1 thought on “Smithsonian Institution: The World’s Largest Museum Complex

  1. It’s great that you saw the Renwick Gallery, It was the only gallery or museum I saw because of the huge Spring Break crowds. You loved all of the same pieces I did!


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