10 Small Museums in Washington, D.C.
Riveting and free, these specialty museums rival the Smithsonian
At the Folger, docent Barbara Valakos made sure I saw a copy of a 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays-regarded by many academicians as the most important book in the English language. An Elizabethan-style theater open to visitors regularly stages Shakespeare's plays.
Totaling more than 85,000 pages, comedian Bob Hope's joke file has been digitally scanned and indexed by the Library of Congress. Visitors can call up examples (I read a dozen) in the Library's Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, a musical romp through the age of vaudeville. With apologies to Bob, the masterwork at the Library of Congress is a Gutenberg Bible of 1455, printed on vellum and one of only three perfect copies known to exist. Don't miss the twin galleries, "American Treasures" and "World Treasures," for more historic publications.
Details: For both museums, take the Orange/Blue Line to Capitol South station.
America's finest crafts-handmade works of art in wood, glass, metal, and pottery-delight the eye and tease the mind at the Renwick Gallery (357-2531), an often overlooked Smithsonian gallery facing the White House. On my most recent visit, its rooms were filled with mostly avant-garde works-outrageous, comical, or simply elegant. After checking out Ghost Clock, I coveted Game Fish, a giant sailfish sculpture flamboyantly bedecked in colorful buttons, beads, coins, and even a Superman doll.
At the Textile Museum (667-0441), this hemisphere's foremost museum devoted to the display and preservation of handmade textiles, recent exhibitions have included an eighteenth-century Chinese "Dragon Coat" of exquisitely embroidered silk, a thirteenth-century striped tunic from Peru, and a vivid red twentieth-century scarf from Bali. These lovely objects illustrate the museum's subtle instruction in the fine art of weaving. The museum occupies a gorgeous brick mansion and garden just off Embassy Row.
The National Building Museum (272-2448) focuses on the art of building design, highlighting prominent architects and their work and tackling such hot topics as smart growth. I lingered at a display of small scale models made by architectural students for a class assignment. They tackled one project, the design for a Las Vegas casino, with obvious gusto.
Details: For the Renwick, Red Line to Farragut North station; for the Textile Museum, Red Line to Dupont Circle station; for the Building Museum, Red Line to Judiciary Square station.
Messages from the past
The United States mail gets delivered, foul weather or not. So assert the interesting (really) permanent exhibits at the National Postal Museum (357-2991), another frequently ignored Smithsonian offshoot.
With the help of interactive devices, displays trace the origins of our postal system from colonial days to the present-noting en route the legendary Pony Express, the debut of airmail and-for better or worse-the advent of mail-order catalogs.
At one video station, I played postal pilot, navigating a cargo of airmail through a dense midwestern fog. Like generations of carriers, I delivered the mail on time.
Details: Red Line to Union Station.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (488-0400) tells the harrowing story of Nazi Germany's systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry, homosexuals, and other "undesirables." The narrative, aided by films from the war years, vividly describes the notorious ghettos and death camps. A Polish boxcar of the type known to have transported victims to their awful fate is among the artifacts. Inside, you can only begin to imagine their fear.
Upon entering the museum, you are randomly assigned a booklet bearing the name, photo, and story of a real-life victim; by the end of your visit, you'll learn whether that person perished or survived. Watch the films. Study the exhibits. Listen to the survivors. Though emotionally draining, the experience is a reminder, as the museum suggests, of our "responsibilities as citizens of a democracy."
Details: Orange/Blue Line to Smithsonian station.
When you go
Washington's best-known budget hotel, beloved by school groups and Scout troops, is the 245-room Hotel Harrington (800/424-8532, hotelharrington.com), $89 to $135 a night for two people; $135 to $145 for a family room for four. The Harrington is conveniently located near the Metro Center station and the National Mall. For cheaper lodging, check into Hostelling International's 270-bed facility (202/737-2333, hiwashingtondc.org), $29 per bunk for nonmembers. Local hotels often offer weekend specials. Check with a discounter, such as Hotel Reservations Network (800/355-1394, hotels.com).
To keep meal costs down, dine at the Harrington Caf,, featuring Hungarian beef goulash and an all-you-can-eat salad bar for $10.65. Or try such low-priced city center caf,s as El Tamarindo (Salvadoran cuisine, 1785 Florida Ave. NW), Full Kee (Chinese, 509 H St. NW) in Chinatown, and Moby Dick (Persian, Connecticut Ave. at N St. NW).
A one-day Metrorail pass (metroopensdoors.com), good for both subway and buses, costs $5 per person.
For more on museums, hotels, and restaurants: D.C. Visitor Information Center (202/328-4748, dcvisit.com).
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