Top Smithsonian Exhibits
The Smithsonian Institute has hundreds of permanent and temporary exhibits throughout its museums in Washington, DC. For visitors with limited time, it can be overwhelming deciding what to see and what to skip. Fortunately, the top Smithsonian exhibits are permanent features of the museums that are relatively easy to find and explore.
Star-Spangled Banner – National Museum of American History
Immortalized by Sir Francis Scott Key during the war of 1812, the Star-Spangled Banner is the United States’ most famous historical flag. Originally measuring an immense 30 x 40, the garrison flag was ordered by Fort McHenry’s commander George Armistead in 1813. During the Battle of Baltimore, Sir Francis Scott Key penned the poem, which later became national anthem of the United States, while viewing the flag withstanding the fort’s bombardment. After a nine year restoration, the Star-Spangled Banner can now be viewed as part of a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Despite the restoration, the flag is missing nearly twenty percent of its original material and the 15th star. Collectors relentlessly requested mementos after the war, leading to the substantial loss of fabric. The Star-Spangled Banner exhibit is in the center of the museum on the second level.
Giant Panda Habitat – National Zoological Park
Since first arriving at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in 1972, the giant pandas have been one of the most popular exhibits in Washington, DC. The original pair, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived after Nixon’s visit to China and lived until 1992 and 1999, respectively. China replaced them with a second loaned pair, Mei-Xiang and Tian-Tian, in 2000 on a ten year arrangement. The pair have successfully raised three cubs, Tai Shan 2005, Bao Bao 2013, and Bei Bei 2015. Tai Shan and Bao Bao were returned to China, in accordance with the loan agreement.
In 2006, the National Zoo opened the newly renovated Asia Trail exhibit, which featured the giant panda habitat. The renovation almost doubled the panda habitat to over 40,000 square feet with climbing trees, waterfalls, and artificially cooled rocks for the summer. The renovated habitat allows visitors multiple viewpoints to include above the enclosure, at ground level through glass, and indoors at the panda house. Visitors should be aware that the indoors panda house often has long lines. The giant pandas can also be viewed remotely via the panda cams. The Ford Motor Company, Fujifilm, and the Rubenstein Family have all provided substantial donations to help maintain the National Zoo’s giant panda habitat and conversation efforts.
Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals – National Museum of Natural History
With the Dinosaurs Hall undergoing renovations until 2019, the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular exhibits for visitors. The hall is divided into the following sections: Precious Gems, Minerals, Mining, Rocks, Earth, and Space. The precious gems exhibit features famous pieces such as the Hope Diamond, the Don Pedro Aquamarine, the Star of Asia Sapphire, the 422 ct Logan Sapphire Brooch, a giant 70 lb topaz crystal, and the 858 ct Gachala Emerald. The minerals exhibit houses hundreds of cut and uncut rare minerals in a variety of sizes and colors. The mining exhibit includes a large display case of gold , while the space exhibit features several large meteorites. The Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals is located on the second floor of the museum in the east wing.
The Hope Diamond is by far the most famous piece of the exhibit. Originally measuring 115 ct and possibly being mined in India, the dark blue gem was cut to 67 ct for King Louis XIV in 1678. The bleu de France was stolen during the French Revolution in 1792 and reemerged in the possession of London banker Thomas Hope in the 1890s. During its disappearance, the diamond was recut to a new 45.5 ct antique cushion design. Many assume that the jewel was in the possession of King George IV prior to being obtained by Thomas Hope. It was later sold by Pierre Cartier to Washington, DC’s McLean family and finally donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958 by Harry Winston. The donation helped establish the museum’s gem collection. Perhaps due to its connection with the French Revolution or as part of a marketing scheme, the diamond has often been referred to as cursed for its owners. The diamond is insured for $250 million.
Space Race – Air and Space Museum
Selecting one exhibit from the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is challenging. The museum displays historically significant aircraft such as the original 1903 Wright Flyer, a Douglas DC-3, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega. However, the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union defined a period of time and took humans further than they had ever traveled before. Items of particular interest include Yuri Gagarin’s training spacesuit, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Apollo 11 Command Module “Columbia”, Hubble Space Telescope Model, John Glenn’s spacesuit from the first orbital flight of a U.S. astronaut, Vanguard rocket, and the Jupiter-C rocket used to transport the U.S.’s first artificial satellite.
The Apollo 11 mission marked the first successful lunar landing in human history. Launched by a Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 11 spacecraft consisted of a Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Module. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module on the moon, while Michael Collins piloted the command / service Module. The command module was later utilized for the earth landing in the Pacific Ocean. The heat shield was ejected and parachutes were deployed. The command module is on display in the Space Race exhibit.