The National Mall is perhaps the closest thing Washington has to a theme park, except that everything you see is free. Many of the sites in the National Mall, while free, require a timed-entry ticket as there are simply too many tourists to accommodate everyone in certain buildings like the Washington Monument or the Holocaust Museum. You should expect long lines.
And like other theme parks such as Walt Disney World, the National Mall is a world-famous tourist mecca that will take you at least a week to fully explore. You’ll find numerous monuments, museums, and memorials along this strip park that is also used by residents and tourists alike for protests and demonstrations, picnics, kite-flying, jogging, and frisbee-throwing. And various events like outdoor concerts, Fourth of July fireworks celebrations, and festivals like the annual summer Smithsonian Folklife Festival take place throughout the year at the Mall.
The main attractions at the National Mall are its art galleries and museums, but you’ll also find memorials dedicated to war veterans and famous Presidents as well as a few significant monuments and buildings.
Freer Gallery of Art
One of the highlights of the National Mall is the Freer Gallery of Art. It has one of the world’s finest collections of masterpieces from Asia dating from 4000 BC to the present. The collection was donated by 19th century businessman Charles Lang Freer who collected more than 28,000 individual works from Asia, complemented by 19th and 20th century American pieces, including works by James McNeill Whistler. The building of the gallery is an Italian-Renaissance style building with a pink granite exterior and marble white floors in the interior.
Sixteen of the nineteen galleries at the museum are devoted to Asian art, including Chinese paintings and bronzes, Indian sculpture, Japanese lacquerware, Islamic metalware, and Korean ceramics. The highlights of these works include a 10th century Indian bronze “Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati”, 12th century wood sculpture called the “Bosatsu” from Japan.
American painter James Whistler’s works are on display in the Peacock Room, a blue and gold dining room decorated with painted wood, leather, and canvas. The room was designed by the painter for a British shipping magnate, which Freer bought for $30,000 and moved from London to the U.S. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are painted with golden peacocks, and the highlight of the room is a blue-and-white porcelain called “The Princess in the Land of Porcelain”.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Adjoining the Freer Gallery is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The gallery is pretty much entirely underground. Its collection includes Chinese bronzes and jades, ancient Iranian silver, Persian manuscripts, and works from Japan and Tibet. On the first level, you’ll find objects such as a 13th century beaten brass incense burner from Syria, a 4th century BC drinking vessel shaped like a gazelle from Iran, and medieval granite deities from India. In the Arts of China galleries, you’ll find 12th and 13th century crafted jades and Tang dynasty tomb guardians. On the third floor, you’ll find contemporary Japanese vases and bowls that are colorfully glazed. There is also an S. Dillon Ripley Center which showcases temporary exhibits.
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is one of the best art museums in the entire United States. Its collection of western masterpieces is so massive and comprehensive that it occupies two buildings, the East Building and the West Building. The East Building contains modern and contemporary art whereas the West Building exhibits 13th to 19th century European sculptures and paintings.
While the West Building is Neolithic in style, the East Building features marble-faced monolithic surfaces, glass hyphens, and acute angles set in a trapezoidal shape site. Both buildings are connected by an underground concourse.
The collection of the West Building includes 14th to 16th century Italian Renaissance masterpieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’Benci, a 1474 oil painting on wood, Botticelli’s Giuliano de Medici, Giotto’s Madonna and Child, Titian’s Venus with a Mirro, and Raphael’s Alba Madonna. You’ll also find 17th century baroque paintings like Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene and Jacopo Manfredi’s Bravos Drinking and Making Music. There is also a Flemish and Dutch section with 17th century collections like Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat. Of the 19th century French Impressionist paintings, the highlights include Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can, Manet’s The Railway, and Monet’s Woman with a Parasol.
In the East Building, you’ll find exhibits that trace the evolution of modernism with works by artists like Picasso, Miro, Magritte, Lichtenstein, Kandinsky, and Giacometti. The highlights include Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques and The Lovers, Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, and Miro’s The Farm.
Also part of the National Gallery Art is the Sculpture Garden across the street from the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. The garden displays a few of the permanent sculpture collections of the museum including Miro’s Personnage Gothique, Noguchi’s Great Rock of Inner Seeking, Roy Lichtenstein’s House I, and Magdalena Abakonwicz’s Puellae – 30 headless, shriveled short girls sculpted to depict a Holocaust story. Also notable is Louise Bourgeois’ 9-foot Spider, which explores the artist’s childhood memory and loss.
National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art was created from the memorabilia of the former slave, Frederick Douglas, who became a prominent abolitionist. In addition, you’ll find 19th century paintings by African-American artists as well as more than 7,000 objects representing every area of the African continent. The objects include textiles, sculpture, photos, paintings, pottery, and jewelry dating from ancient times to the present.
Hishhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
The Hishhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden is housed in a white, hatbox building created out of the donated works owned by Joseph H. Hishhorn who was a Latvian immigrant who struck it rich in his country running uranium mines. The building stands 82 feet high, surrounded by an open courtyard with a bronze fountain. There are more than 17,000 works of art representing works from Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Joan Miro, and Jean Dubuffet, among others.
You’ll also find an impressive sculpture collection and a sculpture garden across Jefferson Drive, highlighted by Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and Henri Matisse’s Backs I-IV.
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most popular attractions of the National Mall, attracting close to 10 million people each year. Occupying a four-acre building, the museum has 23 galleries dedicated to the history of aviation. On display are plastic models of aircrafts suspended from the ceiling, including the aircraft Wilbur Wright piloted over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis which made the first non-stop transatlantic flight over the Atlantic, the X-1 rocket plane used by Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier, and the X-15 aircraft which was the first to exceed Mach 6. The museum also features the Voyager airplane used by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager to fly nonstop around the world in 1986, the Lockheed Vega which was the plane used by Amelia Earhart who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. The highlight, however, is a 4 billion year-old rock collected by the astronauts of Apollo 17.
In addition to the aircrafts and models, the museum has a Lockheed Martin IMAX Theatre showing 3-D films related to aviation. There is also a planetarium with technology that creates the feeling of movement through space.
National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is one of the world’s best of its kind. The museum contains an insect zoo and rare Native American artifacts. All told, there are more than 125 million individual artifacts and specimens, although most of them are not on display but stored in drawers and shelves. There is a Birds of D.C. exhibit as well that showcases taxidermed eastern birds such as golden and bald eagles, warblers, swans, and the extinct passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet.
Among the highlights include a 13-foot tall African bush elephant, which is the largest one found. It weighed 12 tons and was killed in 1954. The 25,000 square-foot permanent exhibition, Mammal Hall, which illustrates interactively with lifelike models the evolution of mammals through adaptation to changing environments. The Early Life exhibit, meanwhile, has the oldest fossils, including 3.5 billion year-old microbes and 530 million-year-old soft-bodied animals. Probably the most popular exhibit is the Dinosaur Hall, which includes fossilized skeletons of various dinosaurs like the 90-foot diplodocus or the smaller Thescelosaurus.
On the second floor, be sure to visit the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, where you’ll find spectacular jewelry, crystals, and minerals including Marie Antoinette’s earrings and the Hope Diamond, which was found in India and is supposedly cursed.
National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian is a vibrant center for Native American events and programs but also serves as a museum showcasing Indian art and artifacts. Much of the collection comes from wealthy New York banker, George Gustav, who in the early 20th century amassed almost one million pieces of South American Native artifacts that spanned 10,000 years of history. Over the years, the collection has grown to 4 million objects. The highlights of the museum include masks and carvings from the Pacific Northwest tribes, hides and feather bonnets from the Plains Indians, basketry and pottery from the Southwest, early Navajo weavings, artifacts from Central America, South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean such as jade and feather works by the Maya and Olmec.
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History has a collection of more than three million artifacts, exploring America’s scientific, political, cultural, and technical past. It has often been described as the “nation’s attic”. The museum has three floors with sections devoted to automobiles, other sections focusing on science and technology, and other sections like the second floor concentrating on U.S. social and political history.
The museum features, among its collection, the ruby slippers of Dorothy in the film The Wizard of Oz, the boxing gloves of Muhammad Ali, and the furniture from the 1970s hit sitcom, All in the Family. There are also exhibits displaying gowns worn by First Ladies and another section called Engines of Change which features the 1836 John Bull, which is the oldest locomotive that is still operable. There is also a Military History Hall that traces the history of U.S. military involvement in various wars, including artifacts from the Civil War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and the two World Wars.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The U.S. Holocaust Museum is a memorial to the millions who died at the hands of the Nazis during WWII. The museum occupies a factory-like brick building. There are permanent exhibitions that tell the illustrated stories of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, political prisoners, and the disabled who were executed during the Nazi era. Their stories are told through graphic presentations, displays of artifacts, documentary films, and oral histories provided through video and audio tapes. There is also a Hall of Remembrance that is next to the museum which honors the 1.5 million children who died.
The Washington Monument is a 555-foot, white-colored, marble obelisk that is surrounded by flags representing every state in the U.S. There is an elevator that takes you to the 500-foot level where you can enjoy great views of the city. The Washington Monument has become one of the symbols of Washington, D.C. along with the White House. It is the world’s tallest masonry structure and reigned as the tallest structure in the world for a brief period when it was opened in 1888, before that title was assumed by the Eiffel Tower in 1889.
Prompted by Senator James McMillan’s Commission, the National Mall was converted from a pile of coal and debris lined with railroad tracks in the early 20th century into the vast esplanade it is today. Marshy areas were filled up and the tracks and debris removed. The railroad station that once occupied the site was moved to the present-day location at Union Station. The Lincoln Memorial was also added to the Mall. During the second half of the 20th century, the Mall became a popular site for protests and rallies. The famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a massive Civil Rights rally held on site, an event highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Vietnam War Moratorium Rally in 1969 was also held at the Mall, and today remains the largest recorded rally. In more recent years, the 2004 March for Women’s Lives and the 2007 protest against the Iraq War were both held at the Mall.
“National Mall.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_mall>
Thompson, John, and Richard T. Nowitz. Washington, DC, 2nd Edition. National Geographic Society, 2005. ISBN: 0792238877.
Wang, Amy B., and Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc. Staff. Fodor’s Washington, D.C 2006. New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2005. ISBN: 1400015642.
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