Tag Archives: DC Museums

Lesser-Known Stories & Secrets Behind Five Museums Around the DC Area

What stories lie within these museum walls?

[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” ]


With the winter season upon us, perhaps there’s no better time to stay indoors and explore DC’s extensive museum scene. While many locals and tourists may be familiar with these historical and art havens, the bizarre and lesser-known stories behind them are likely not as widely as known.

With the ever-changing restrictions and challenges currently facing the city, it’s a good idea to visit each of these museum’s websites for updates regarding operating hours and admission requirements. Except for the Phillips Collection, all featured museums are free and just begging to be explored.

Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to discover even more hidden histories and peculiarities in and around the DC area!


National Gallery of Art: “Finally, On the Mark”

Markers of a presidential assassination

The next time you find yourself satisfying your love of art and getting your fix of Picasso and Monet paintings, take some time to locate the two markers that denote the site of President James Garfield’s unusual assassination. The markers are situated near the south entrance of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, which is where the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station previously stood.

On July 2, 1881, the United States’ 20th president, who had only served as president for four months, was shot by lawyer Charles J. Guiteau, a resentful and unstable man seeking to gain political power, notoriety, and revenge. Guiteau had stalked Garfield for several months prior to that night. After delivering a few small local speeches supporting Garfield during the election, Guiteau believed that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory. He began sending Garfield letters and eventually moved from Chicago to Washington. He made demands of the president, including for a post in Paris even though he had no prior experience and did not speak French. Angered and fueled by Garfield’s dismissal and rejection, Guiteau set out to shoot Garfield at the present-day site of the National Gallery of Art.

Read All About It: Dive deeper into this odd story surrounding the assassination of President Garfield on pages 42-43 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The National Gallery of Art is is open daily, 10am – 5pm. Admission is free.

Where: The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets along Constitutional Avenue NW.

See More:  Read about the museum’s East side in this KFDC post.


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Smithsonian American Art Museum: “One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Masterpiece”

Magnificent “trashy” art on display

As the adage goes: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. James Hampton, Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity, took that timeless sentiment to heart, proving that many everyday discarded items can be converted into stunning objects of art.

After receiving religious visions, Hampton devoted over 14 years of his life to constructing a monument to God, eventually known around the world as The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

In 1950, Hampton undertook this elaborate project in hopes of preparing for Christ’s return to earth. He created his grand showpiece in a rented carriage house, transforming its dull interior into a magnificent workspace. He assembled coffee cans, jelly jars, flower vases, lightbulbs, metal, scrap wood, plastic, and tinfoil into something magical. He also incorporated old furniture and various office supplies into the brilliant structure. The Throne is comprised of two levels. A cushioned throne in the back is a central point for the extremely symmetrical array. Objects on the right represent the New Testament and Jesus; those on the left portray the Old Testament and Moses.

Read All About It: Read more about James Hampton’s masterpiece on pages 12-13 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore:  The museum is currently open Sunday – Wednesday, 11:30am – 7pm.  Admission is free.

Where: The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located at 8th and F Streets NW.

See More: Read about and get a glimpse of the museum in this KFDC post and this one.


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Phillips Collection: “Sorry for Stealing, But Please Tighten Your Security”

Inside The Phillips Collection

Mention the words “art heist” and there’s a good chance that a slew of action-packed movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment conjure up to mind. Well, it turns out that art museum thefts aren’t exclusive to Hollywood films; sometimes they occur right in your neighborhood, sometimes the stolen masterpieces turn up in unexpected places, and sometimes the thefts are executed to teach the museum a lesson.

Located in DC’s prestigious Dupont Circle neighborhood, the Phillips Collection is home to more than 5,000 pieces in styles ranging from French impressionism and American modernism to contemporary art. The collection includes works by an array of renowned artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso. It is regarded as the nation’s oldest modern art museum.

In January 1983, the typically quiet museum was anything but; instead, it became the center of an art heist, bustling with commotion and confusion. A museum guard became suspicious when he noticed a man leaving the museum with his arms wrapped around a bunched-up tweed coat. It didn’t take long for the museum to realize that the man, accompanied by a female companion, had stolen “Virgin Alsace,” a 1920 statue by Antoine Bourdelle valued at $35,000.

Read All About It: Learn more about this unusual art heist on pages 46-47 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 6pm. Admission is $16/adult, $12/senior, $10/student, free/age 18 & under. Special promo: Tickets are pay-what-you-wish for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first serve via online reservation.

Where: The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street NW.

See More: Read about KFDC experiences at the Phillips in this post and this one.


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Smithsonian National Postal Museum: “The Dog Days of the US Postal Museum”

Owney with RMS clerks (photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

In 1888, a scruffy mutt was abandoned by a postal clerk in an Albany, New York, post office. Postal workers wrapped him in postal bags to keep him warm, and so began the launch of Owney’s path toward becoming the unofficial mascot of the US Postal System. The dog is so beloved by US Postal System that he landed a prominent spot in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Described as a dog who was attracted to the texture and scents of mail bags, Owney soon began following mailbags everywhere. Over the next decade, he travelled by train and accompanied mail clerks around the world, traveling a staggering 140,000 miles. He soon became a good luck charm to the mail clerks who travelled with him. At a time when train accidents were common, no train that Owney had traveled on was ever in an accident. To commemorate Owney’s extensive travels, he was adorned with medals and tags labelled with city names. When Owney would return to Albany, the clerks there would save the tags. When Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a fan of Owney’s, discovered that Owney’s collar was weighed down by the accumulating tags, he gave Owney a vest where postal workers could pin his extensive tag collection.

Read All About It: Read more about Owney and how he became postal royalty on pages 76-77 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Saturday – Tuesday, 10am – 5:30pm.  Admission is free.

Where: The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE.

See More: Read about and get a glimpse of the museum in this KFDC post and this one.


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National Museum of Health and Medicine: “Calling All Stomachs of Steel”

An “inside” look at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Washington, DC, is host to an incredible wealth of museums, housing everything from national treasures, famous paintings, and historical artifacts. While museums belonging to the world- renowned Smithsonian conglomerate often receive the most acclaim and visitors, there are a plethora of smaller and lesser-known museums also deserving of attention and time. The fascinating and quirky National Museum of Health and Medicine is undoubtedly one of them.

Founded at the start of the Civil War, the museum was created to further the research of military field surgery. Surgeon General William Hammond commanded Union doctors on the battlefield to send him “specimens of morbid anatomy…together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed.” The Army Medical Museum (the museum’s original name) was led by doctors, and it quickly acquired a bevy of gruesome artifacts for the staff to examine on their way to the front. While the museum is no longer run by medical doctors, exhibits depicting the history of military medicine continue to be a mainstay. These exhibits, along with several medical specimens, continue to attract visitors each year. So, what are some of the grisly items on display? A few of the main attractions include a conjoined twin specimen preserved in alcohol and a human hairball that was removed from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her hair for six years.

Read All About It: Read more about this museum dedicated to the history of military medicine and medical oddities on pages 78-79 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free.

Where: The National Museum of Health and Science is located on 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, MD.

See More: Read about a past KFDC experience at the museum.


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JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog dcglobejotters.org. Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is her first book.


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Join the Alma Thomas Community Celebration at the National Gallery of Art this Weekend!


The National Gallery of Art reopened its doors last spring, and it’s been wonderful to return to one of our favorite museums again.  Even better, it’s open daily, making it a go-to any day of the week.  But this coming weekend, September 24-26, will be an especially great time to visit, as the museum hosts a Community Celebration honoring late pioneering artist Alma Thomas!

The in-person, on-site event will feature a variety of activities and experiences that explore Thomas’s life and her wide range of creative endeavors, all of them self-guided for Covid safety.  Plus, there are extra goodies and discounts to enjoy while you’re there!  The weekend offerings and festivities include:

·    Free art kits with a coloring book of National Gallery works by local artists, coloring materials, and a cutout doll designed by Brittany Jackson, illustrator of the acclaimed children’s book Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment.

·     A special flower display inspired by Alma Thomas’s Pansies in Washington (1969)  

·     A display showcasing works by local community members, celebrating Alma Thomas’s art and legacy 

·     50% discount on Alma Thomas-inspired gelato at the Espresso & Gelato Bar  

·     15% discount on shops purchases with the code ALMA15 (onsite and online) 

·     A pop-up performance from Howard University Bands at 4pm on Sunday 


Thomas’ painting, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, inspired by sights, sounds, & smells of DC


The event is part of a larger citywide celebration featuring a symposium with virtual sessions September 22-23. Geared toward adults, it will bring together noted scholars, artists, and curators to discuss Alma Thomas’s life and legacy, including an introduction by Michelle Obama.

The National Gallery of Art’s Community Celebration will take place in the East Building from 1-5pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Admission is free.

Alma Thomas Community Celebration
Where: National Gallery of Art | National Mall, DC
When: Friday – Sunday, September 24-26, 1-5pm
Admission: Free


This post is sponsored by the National Gallery of Art, however, I only promote events, programs, and places that I genuinely believe in and think will appeal to KFDC readers.

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Filed under 2021, All ages, Art, DC, Fall, Free, Museums, Weekend

Explore Art Indoors & Out at the Kreeger Museum


Why it took me so long to visit the Kreeger Museum, I really don’t know.  I had heard about how great it was from my own daughter after she went there on a school field trip a few years ago, so it’s been on my radar. I just hadn’t actually been.

But I finally did get there and understand why Sasha enjoyed it so much! (My kids are at sleep away camp, so this was a solo visit.)  Located in DC’s Foxhall-Palisades neighborhood, the Kreeger Museum is perfect for an art fix that’s gratifying  without being overwhelming.

It’s not huge, but the collection, most of it from the 19th and 20th centuries, housed in several small indoor galleries and around its five acres outside is very impressive.  Inside, there are works by Monet, Picasso, Miro, Calder, and many more celebrated artists. And the sculpture garden outdoors includes beautiful, interesting, even fun pieces.

Currently on exhibit, “Objects from the Studio: The Sculptor’s Process,” includes models of the sculptures outside, some that you can see right beyond the window.  Another gallery features portraits of David and Karmen Kreeger along with info about their lives and philanthropic contributions to the art world.

The museum itself, both the interior space and outdoor architecture, are artfully designed, too. There are high arching ceilings, galleries built around a small courtyard, and expansive windows that bring in beautiful light and offer views of the art outside.

You have up to 50 minutes, which is plenty of time, to tour indoors before exploring the outdoor collection.  That part starts on the terrace, where there are several large sculptures.  Then you can wander the grounds containing all kinds of large-scale installations.  On one side is a fountain/pool with seating and sculptures around it, a small patch of woods has art and a trail that loops around, a grassy expanse includes more large pieces, and there’s even a piece “climbing” on the side of building (my favorite), another snaking up a tree, and one that plays solar powered music.


Both adults and kids will be delighted — by all of it, indoors and out.

The Kreeger Museum is located at 2401 Foxhall Road.  It’s open Tuesday – Saturday with timed-entry sessions: 10-10:50am, 11-11:50am, 2-2:50pm, and 3-3:50pm (the 50 minutes is for indoor self tours, then you can spend time outside).   Admission is free, and there’s a suggested donation of $10/adult, $8/senior. Tickets need to be reserved in advance, and there’s plenty of availability right now.

KFDC Tip: Plan on lunch or an ice cream treat at Jetties before or after — it’s located right down Foxhall Road and they have delicious sandwiches, salads, and scoops!


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Filed under All ages, Art, DC, Museums

Scenes from Forces of Nature at the Renwick Gallery


After being closed for over five months, the Renwick Gallery is one of the Smithsonian museums that will reopen its doors again starting this Friday, May 14.  And before you think I was able to get in early to capture these scenes, let me clarify that they are from a visit there last fall.

The totality of time lusters the dusk by Lauren Fensterstock looks like floating storm

Sasha and I went to experience the Forces of Nature exhibition last November right before the Renwick shut down due to rising Covid rates.  Given the closing, it seemed moot to post about it back then, but as the reopening nears and the exhibit is still on display, I thought I’d share some pics — and the recommendation to go see it.

Mother-Load by Timothy Horn

Part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick showcases contemporary American craft, often through exhibitions that feature stunning, large-scale installations that are always very popular.  Just about everyone in DC (and visiting DC) saw the fantastic Wonder, and No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man was a glorious mix of beautiful and kooky.

Arboria by Deborah Moore features gorgeous glass flowers

Forces of Nature is reminiscent of both, with striking and intricate works that take up entire galleries and make you want to examine them from all angles.  Even little ones will dig seeing the big pieces that sparkle, look like giant flowers, resemble a rain storm, and sometimes make you feel like you’re within the art.

Ai no Keshiki – Indigo Views by Rowland Ricketts

Timed-entry passes will be required to visit the Renwick, and they are available now.  However, they are already reserved through May and many dates in June — plus, Forces of Nature is only there through August 15 — so I suggest snagging them now to plan for a summer visit!

Timed-entry passes are no longer required to visit the museum, so you can walk in anytime during open hours!

Renwick Gallery
Where: 1661 Pennsylvania Ave., NW | WDC
When: Starting May 14, Wednesday-Sunday, 10am – 5:30pm
Admission: Free with timed-entry passes
Covid policies

The ethereal Renwick 1.8, originally part of Wonder, is on view, too



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Filed under 2020, 2021, All ages, DC, Museums, Spring, Summer, Weekdays, Weekend

Celebrate Black History, Online and Around DC Through February — and Beyond


February is Black History Month, and if you’re looking for ways to celebrate it with kids, you have plenty of options, both virtually and in person around the DC area.  Museum programs, guided and self-guided tours, visits to significant sites, story time sessions, online concerts, and more will be enlightening and entertaining for all ages. And while some of these are happening on specific dates this month, many of them are ongoing for year-round enjoyment and education.  For even more good reads and related content, check out the Black Lives Matter page.

African American History and Culture
Where: NMAAHC | Online
When: Through February
Admission: Free

The National Museum of African American History & Culture may just be the best place to learn about Black history and culture in America. And while the actual place is closed right now, there still are lots of digital resources available through the website that let you explore it all, including online exhibits, programming for children and adults, and a whole section on talking about race.

The Underground Railroad Experience Trail
Where: Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park | Sandy Spring, MD
When: Ongoing
Admission: Free

Take a hike that provides insight into the experience of enslaved peoples’ escape to freedom. This walk through woods and along edges of fields (with a map and explanation of the hike) is interesting and enlightening as well as an active, socially distanced way to spend time outdoors.

Visit BLM Plaza
Where: 16th Street NW | Downtown DC
When: Ongoing
Admission: Free

The two blocks along 16th Street NW, between K Street and Lafayette Park just across from the White House, was emboldened with the giant yellow BLACK LIVES MATTER statement this past summer as the BLM movement began to swell after the murder of George Floyd. The now pedestrian area became a meeting place and focal point of protests and other events — and a site of historic significance in DC. The protest signs that covered the fence around the park have been removed, but the location still provides good context for a conversation with kids about BLM.

Tour Memorials
Where: Several locations in DC
When: Ongoing
Admission: Free

Tour some memorials around the city that highlight notable African Americans and related historic events. Head to the MLK Memorial at the Tidal Basin, where you can view the grand sculpture of Dr. King and read some of his most inspiring quote engraved in surrounding walls. From there, head to the Lincoln Memorial, where even more MLK words, “I Have a Dream” are etched into the steps where he gave his famous speech. In the Shaw neighborhood, the African American Civil War Memorial honors the service and sacrifice of soldiers and sailors who served in the U.S. Army and Navy.  On Capitol Hill, the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park isa tribute to the civil rights leader.

Discover Women’s Landmarks
Where: Various locations around the DMV
When: Ongoing
Admission: Free

The Wander Women Project, a has gathered all the places honoring pioneer black women in the DMV area (and slightly further). Since many indoor museums are closed due to Covid-19, mostly outdoor sites and online resources are listed, making outings to visit to them perfect for social distancing.

Black History in Alexandria
Where: Throughout Alexandria, VA
When: Ongoing
Admission: Varies by activity
A new blog post from Visit Alexandria discusses their renewed commitment to racial equity that pre-dated the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement. There are new major projects and programs that highlight Black history experiences throughout the city, including the Duke Street Black History Trail, Courageous Journey: Alexandria’s Black History Driving Tour, a waterfront African American Heritage Trail and an Underground Railroad-themed tour from Manumission Tour Company.

Black History in MoCo Parks
Where: Parks around Montgomery County, MD
When: Ongoing
Admission: Varies

Several sites within the Montgomery Parks system have connections to Black history. See Civil War ruins, visit a place named for the man who inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explore the site of a 19th century African American roadside community, and more. Get more details here.

Black History with PG Parks
Where: Parks around PG County, MD
When: Through February

Celebrate and honor African American heritage with the PG County park system during Black History Month in February. From performances to history lessons to tours, there are a lot of exciting events and activities planned throughout Prince George’s County, both virtual and in person.

The Slave Memorial & Exhibits
Where: Mount Vernon Estate | Mount Vernon, VA
When: Ongoing
Admission: $20/adult, $12/ages 6-11, free/5 & under

Make a point to see these on a visit to George Washington’s estate in Northern Virginia. The memorial is located approximately 50 yards southwest of George and Martha Washington’s tomb, on a bluff above the Potomac River. A gray, truncated, granite column which represents “life unfinished” is the center of three concentric brick circles. The three steps leading up to the column are inscribed, respectively, “Faith,” “Hope” and “Love” — the virtues that sustained those living in bondage. The exhibit Lives Bound Together explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.

Where: National Portrait Gallery | Online
When: February 3, 10, 17, and 24

The National Portrait Gallery’s program for children ages 3+ shines a light on Black historymakers and their portraits this month. Kids will learn more about art, hear the stories behind the portraits, and even hear some new vocabulary.

Royal Fun with Culture Queen
Where: Online
When: February 6, 2-2:30pm & February 21, 1:30-2pm
Admission: Free

Culture Queen, the children’s author, entertainer, and educator known for presenting empowering entertainment — music, movement, and storytelling — for kids, has a couple of online events this month. Join for Black History Live on February 6 and for a Virtual Dance Party on February 21.

Library Programs
Where: DC Public Library | Online
When: Throughout February
Admission: Free

The DC Public Library proudly celebrates Black History Month during February with all kinds of online programs — story times, book discussions, crafts, and more. Visit the website to see when they are taking place.

Let It Shine
Where: Port Discovery | Baltimore, MD
When: February 6 & 13
Admission: $17.95

At the wonderful children’s museum in Baltimore, celebrate Black History Month by reading festive stories inside The Oasis at the Reading Corner. Of course, plan to enjoy the multiple levels of fun and educational exhibits while you’re there.

Black History Month at the Tiny Desk
Where: NPR Music | Online
When: Through February
Admission: Free

NPR Music’s awesome Tiny Desk Concert series is celebrating Black History Month by featuring 13 Tiny Desk (home) concerts by Black artists across genres and highlighting performances by Black artists from the archives with weekly curated playlists. The celebration will spotlight different genres and generations each week.


*Do you know of a Black History Month event or activity that you don’t see listed here?  Feel free to share in the comments!


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Filed under 2021, All ages, Annual, Black Lives Matter, Coronavirus, COVID-19, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Free, Maryland, Museums, Ongoing, Outdoor, Social Distancing, Special Event, Virginia, Virtual Programs, Weekdays, Weekend, Winter