10 Small Museums in Washington, D.C.
Riveting and free, these specialty museums rival the Smithsonian
For a city that makes history daily, it should come as no surprise that the nation's capital is a major repository of important historical artifacts. Among the truly inspiring is the American flag the Marines raised over the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in World War II. In the sadly odd category, I'd put the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. For fun, it's the hefty joke file of Bob Hope. Where do curious-minded folks find these objects? Not, as you might think, in the major galleries of the Smithsonian Institution.
Anyone contemplating a visit to Washington, D.C., presumably knows about the Smithsonian's great museums on the National Mall, all of which are free to the public. But many people-residents and visitors alike-remain unaware of the city's smaller specialty museums hidden in the Smithsonian's shadow. Their varied art, history, and literary collections rival the Smithsonian's. And they don't charge entrance fees either.
As a group, they deliver drama, pathos, beauty, and whimsy. They're as compelling as a movie, as erudite as an Ivy League professor. Not bad for free. Stay at the city's best-known bargain hotel, the Hotel Harrington, and a Washington getaway is a budget bonanza. Ethnic restaurants, exotic and cheap, keep dining costs down, too.
I've highlighted ten museums here that will reward you with an exciting, thought-provoking sojourn. With one exception, they're located in or near the city center within walking distance of each other (if you've got strong legs). To get you started, I've grouped them in special-interest categories. Don't try to see them all in one visit; savor them individually as they deserve.
The following museums are open year-round. A photo ID is required at several. All subway and bus directions below are from Metro Center, the main subway station. The Washington area code is 202.
America owes much to its armed forces, as visitors are appropriately reminded at the Marine Corps Museum (433-3840) and the Navy Museum (433-6897). They stand as neighbors on the Potomac River at the Washington Navy Yard, a historic site itself, since it's the Navy's oldest shore establishment, dating back to 1799. Both museums trace the history of their respective services from the Revolutionary War years to the present. Currently, the two military museums are open weekdays only. For security reasons, you must call 24 hours ahead.
Now somewhat tattered, the famous U.S. flag that flew atop Mount Suribachi is preserved in the Marine Corps Museum. You can also see some of the loose, black, volcanic ash from an Iwo Jima beach that sorely impeded the landing of men and machines.
Of these two museums, the Navy puts on the most dramatic show. The World War II display features massive anti-aircraft guns and a submarine room with operating periscopes.
One video depicts the launching of planes from a carrier's deck. From the more distant past, a cat-o'-nine-tails recalls flogging as a common naval punishment-it appears quite capable of inflicting considerable pain.
Permanently moored just outside the museums, the Navy destroyer Barry is also open for free self-guided tours.
The Lincoln bullet, fired by a derringer, is part of a fascinating look at Civil War medicine, a major exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (782-2200), which is located on the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Not a place for the queasy, the somewhat macabre museum also displays the right leg bone of Union General Daniel E. Sickles. A cannonball struck him during the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, and his leg was amputated. He survived and donated the limb to the museum, visiting it on several occasions after the war. Step forward a century to see surgery at the front in the Korean War as represented by artifacts from a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital-a MASH unit of TV fame. Elsewhere, body parts in formaldehyde illustrate the ongoing war against disease.
Details: For the Marine/Navy museums, take the Orange/Blue Metro Line to the Eastern Market station, connecting to the N22 bus to the entrance gate. For the NMHM, Red Line to Takoma Park station, connecting to bus 52 or 54 to Walter Reed. This is the only museum too distant from town to reach on foot.
English majors take note: You could fill a weekend at a pair of literary powerhouses parked within steps of each other at the base of the Capitol. They are the Folger Shakespeare Library (544-4600), which houses the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, and the archives of the Library of Congress (707-8000), claiming such publishing treasures as a first edition of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and an early Wonder Woman comic book.
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