The Smithsonian Washington Museum

The Smithsonian Washington Museum-ther are more than TEN museums! The history behind the many museums and their contents make up an interesting part of America's heritage.

When visiting Washington for the first time most people express their desire to see The Smithsonian - after all, the reputation of this museum is worldwide and we've all seen the many specials and heard about the exhibits there.

But the average visitor is astonished to find out that there is no "one" Smithsonian - in fact, there are over ten museums all attached to the Smithsonian - each with their own specialty and to visit them all would take much more than a few hours. You can literally spend days traveling between the museums and still not see everything.

The Smithsonian is composed of sixteen museums and galleries including the National Zoo as well as research facilities in the United States and in other countries. Nine Smithsonian museums are located on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, an easy walk from each other. Five other museums and the Zoo are elsewhere in Washington, D.C., and both the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center are in New York City. These many museums house the United States' national collections in natural history, American history, air and space, the fine arts and the decorative arts, and several other fields ranging from postal history to cultural history. Almost anything you can think of can be found in some form in the vast repetoires of the Museums.

The National Air and Space Museum is one such place; displaying life-size exhibits of such space vehicles as the Mars lander and the missles used to send satellites into orbit, capturing the imagination as you wander among the many artifacts collected throughout the years. The Race For Space is depicted here with exhibits of both the Russian and American space programs, including spacesuits; orbital vehicles and training materials. Most of these were not avaliable until just recently due to secrecy, but with the ending of the Cold War a new era opened up where Russian space artifacts were allowed to be purchased for display purposes for both private and public museums. You can see an original Mercury capsule alongside the Soyuz module; making your trip a journey through the years leading up and past the original moon landing. An IMAX theater is also in the building, allowing you to experience as close as possible the sensation of going into space without leaving the ground.

A short walk away is the Natural History Museum, a treasure trove of information for the young scholar. Many hours can be spent here perusing a collection of exhibits unmatched in North America and possibly the world. Other museums are nearby as well, making the average visitor's head spin in confusion as you decide what to see and when.

But the Smithsonian didn't just spring out of the grass. In 1829 English scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the people of the United States to found an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." No one knows why he chose the United States for the benefactor of his wealth nor what exactly he meant by the phrasing; but a variety of uses have been found for his gift. Over the years a special group was formed independent of the government to interpret and to use the money as they saw fit to accomplish Smithson's idea. As each museum was completed, another was in construction; with the recent addition of the Native History Museum due for completion shortly. Unfortunately with the lack of space on the Mall, this will be the last Smithsonian Museum in that area; but one of the most anticipated.

The Smithsonian Institution has become part of the process of developing the U.S. national identity; holding more than 140 million artifacts and exhibits in their vast vaults; rotating them into sight and then back away as to give all the relics proper viewing time. Such items as the original models from Star Trek and Indiana Jones' fedora have become part of the collection as it grows and matures with age. Prehistoric fossils can be found next to The Declaration of Independence next to robots from Star Wars - making the Smithsonian truly a museum for all the people.

No visit to Washington can be complete without visiting at least one of the Smithsonian Museums and wondering at the expansive collection gathered over time. A model for museums in the future and a treasure of the past, she is truly is the Grand Old Lady of Museums.

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