A “Family Circus” Tour of Washington, DC: Beyond the Smithsonian

The 45 min. flight, wheels up to wheels down, to Washington DC is hardly enough time to figure out what to do while you are there, or demand peanuts and chardonnay from the flight attendants . . . but I expected to accomplish both.

I didn’t manage to get either a plan of action or refreshments . . . but some of my favorite travel adventures are along the lines of Billy’s meanderings in Family Circus – on the way to one destination, I get a taste of so many other unexpected adventures! By necessity, due to its population density, Washington DC has embraced alternate transportation, and the subway is a great place to start when you are traveling without access to a car!


map of subway    transportation    bike mural

So, what’s open late on a Wednesday in DC, so I can sneak in a little culture after a long day of meetings? The institute’s website said the Natural History museum was open until 7. Well, the site was wrong, . . . or I was quickly and carelessly making plans on my iPhone as I walked across The Mall, and misread the calendar. (I’d had no cellular service on the subway, from Crystal City to the capital, so that time was spent people watching, as work commuters, students and tourists alike exited the city.)

But the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum is a popular spot, so I decided I’d see what I could in the final 10 min, and then move along . . .

 Elephant   Chetah    Hippo

Distracted on the way to the next Smithsonian building, I stumbled upon the privately owned Museum of Crime and Punishment. Well, that’s different! I was braced to see something shocking, but I’d have to pay $21 to do so, in a city that is full of FREE (government funded) museums, galleries and performances. Perhaps that’s why the sign on the door warned that “due to unforeseen circumstances” the museum would be closing its doors to the public . . . that day! With only an hour left before the big closing, I thought I’d work on the museum staff; they were a bit scattered, as you can imagine. The teens were unwilling to waive the high priced entrance fee so I could take a quick peek, so I did the next best thing; I meandered around the lobby, concession stand and gift shop.

 Crime Tape        Fingerprints       Closing Sign

A museum gift shop is like a snapshot of what’s behind the ticket counter. I worked in the Brookfield Zoo’s main gift shop for 5 adolescent summers and the Milwaukee Public Museum’s 3 themed gift shops during my undergraduate years. If you can’t afford the admission price, and it’s not “free day”, visit the website and the gift shop! You can usually find a post card to remember the spot, and you should always check for astronaut ice cream . . . ‘cause who doesn’t love Neapolitan astronaut ice cream?

Even with its extended hours, I thought I might never make it to the art museum, as I was once again derailed along the way, by the display window of the District Architecture Center (DAC) & it’s “Nature in a Walkable City” exhibition. This is a beautifully designed, contemporary event and meeting space, “where architecture meets the city”. I got to see a bit of local art, celebrating the amazing opportunities in DC to explore at on foot. “Beginning with Pierre L’Enfant’s vision for a grand capital, Washington was planned to have nature surround, nurture, and sustain us. Formal and informal landscapes provide pleasure and practical benefits for residents and visitors alike. The large number of trees and parks, as well as the city’s two beautiful, accessible rivers, are a source of delight.” (http://aiadac.com/sigal-gallery/current-exhibition)

Eventually I made it to my destination of the American Art Museum. In the past I’d skipped over this collection, in favor of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art. What was I thinking? I’m amazed at the diversity and volume of works housed within the museum at the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, a visible storage area of more than 3,000 works. It’s a unconventional way of viewing art, like a library you could get lost in for days.

Block Art                   block close-up


As an artist myself, I couldn’t help but appreciate the efforts to restore and preserve paintings, objects, frames and paper artwork at the Lunder Conservation Center. A behind the scenes look at conservation efforts, and those who specialize in this area of study, is offered.


I could have wandered the museum for several more hours, but boy, can a Smithsonian Institution clear the building at closing time! With a highly coordinated team of security personnel to funnel patrons towards the exit, multiple roped off areas, and the gift shop gate descending at 7:01 pm, it is made clear that you are to exit the building immediately, and without protest. Visitors are free to come back the next day at 10:00 am, if they wish.

This hurried, somewhat aggressive approach is startling for someone who had her wallet out, ready to explore the gift shops. In 5 years of working for the Chicago Zoological Society, under the leadership of the redheaded manager named Kathleen (not me), we never closed our doors before every customer had spent their last dollar. I’m not entirely sure if this was great customer service or just standard business practice, but it certainly taught me a strict work ethic! Forbidden from cranking the volume of the overhead music, to then cut it sharply off (“Get Out!”), the vacuum stayed in the closet and the trash waited to be collected until the door was locked. As retail employees, we were all in it for the long haul. Not so at the Smithsonian, so it was time to move on.

My final cultural stop was at the National Archives. Taking a chance that there would be tickets left for a sold-out presentation, I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, moderate “1920s Style: Prohibition-Era Fashion”, with Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and John Dunn, costume designer of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The event was put on in conjunction with the Art Deco Society of Washington, complete with a period fashion show. The event was free, and very well attended. The only thing missing was a selection of period cocktails, though there were several references to such by the society president.

1920s fashion

Next trip, I’ll have to ask around and find out if there is a society “After Party”! Ready for my next adventure!

~ Kathleen

Related Links:

The Family Circushttp://familycircus.com/

Smithsonian Museums in DC http://washington.org/smithsonian-museums-dc?gclid=CP6C84-IrcgCFQgHaQod6QUOUQ

Museum of Crime and Punishment http://www.crimemuseum.org/

Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo http://www.czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Home

Milwaukee Public Museumhttp://www.mpm.edu/

Design & Architecture Center http://aiadac.com/

Luce Foundation Center for American Arthttp://www.americanart.si.edu/luce

Lunder Conservation Center http://www.lunderconservation.si.edu

The National Archives – http://www.archives.gov/

Project Runway http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/project-runway


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