10 Small Museums in Washington, D.C.

Riveting and free, these specialty museums rival the Smithsonian

By James Thurston,

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.

Battlefield tales

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.

Literary treasures

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.

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.

Offbeat artworks

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).