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How Many Freaking Smithsonians Are There, Already?

OK, the Smithsonian is kind of an unnecessarily fluid concept in DC. We often used as shorthand to refer to the museums on the National Mall, which is technically incorrect as not all Smithsonians are on the Mall and not all museums on the Mall are Smithsonians (the National Gallery of Art is its own thing and not part of the Smithsonian Institute).

But let’s say I want to break from tradition and actually be accurate on my tours. The problem I run into is how many Smithsonians are there really? Officially, the Smithsonian Institute refers to their “19 museums and the National Zoo”, so let’s go with that number. I can buy not lumping the Zoo in, as zoos are usually not considered museums. Just don’t make me buy into that old tour guide canard that “the zoo is not a museum, it’s a research institution”. They’re all research institutions, guys, one way or another.

So let’s try to get a handle on all nineteen. Our first problem starts when we click through to the above link. Let’s count them up, as listed:

    1. African Art Museum
    2. Air and Space Museum
    3. Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center (oohh, so now I guess we’re counting them separately?)
    4. American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery
    5. American History Museum
    6. American Indian Museum
    7. Anacostia Community Museum
    8. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
    9. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
    10. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
    11. National Zoo (here listed as under Museums, let’s not count this)
    11. Portrait Gallery
    12. Postal Museum
    13. Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle

And then we get two more, listed under a dividing line:
    14. African American History and Culture Museum (currently in planning stages with a rotating exhibit at the American History Museum, to open in 2015ish).
    15. Arts and Industries Building (currently closed for renovations, I haven’t heard a timeline/plan yet for reopening)

So that gets us up to fifteen (not counting the Zoo, and counting the two museums physically not ready yet). This counts (as it should) the off the Mall museums of Udvar-Hazy near Dulles Airport in Virginia, the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in downtown DC, the Anacostia Museum across the Anacostia River in Southeast DC, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City.

So where are those other four lurking? Well, re-reading our list, I suppose we should break the Renwick Gallery off of the American Art Museum. Frankly, I wish the Smithsonian would as well. The American Art Museum is physically co-located with the National Portrait Gallery at the old Patent Office on F ST NW between 7th and 9th. They share the building, and it takes a really astute observer to notice they are actually two separate museums. Most visitors would never notice. Perversely, the Renwick Gallery, which focuses on crafts and decorative arts, belongs to the American Art Museum, but is physically located several blocks away near the White House. But you wouldn’t really notice this in their collective website, which lumps the two of them together. Annoying, but beyond the scope of our discussion. For our purposes, the Renwick is clearly a separate museum, no matter how the internal structure of the Smithsonian is laid out.

A similar distinction emerges with the Freer/Sackler Galleries. Listed as one Museum; they are at least physically connected, if only by a tunnel. They both focus on Asian Art and share a webpage, but as they are separate buildings I guess we can count them as two museums, bumping our total to seventeen.

So where are those other two hiding? Well, a close look at the National Museum of the American Indian reveals that in addition to their presence on the Mall, they continue to run an earlier incarnation up in New York City, the George Gustav Heye Center at the Customs House near Battery Park in lower Manhattan. And we’re one out away...

And this is where it gets fun. Lurking in the upper left corner I notice the “Virtual Museum” category, with the lonely “Latino Virtual Museum” occupying the only spot. And this is where I put my foot down, Smithsonian. I gave you the African American History and Culture Museum, as plans have progressed, architects have been selected, and they even have a pretty kick-ass exhibition up right now. But I’m sorry guys, just as Second Life is no substitute for the real one, a “virtual museum” doesn’t cut in my book either. Come back and try again when you get something real going with the Latino Museum. I look forward to it.

So, for now, we’re calling it at 18 Museums and the National Zoo. You guys can relax a bit on the count: you’re already world-class, you don’t need to over-compensate.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ian, Germantown for catching me out! I forgot the Natural History Museum!!!! The most visited museum, celebrating it's 100th Anniversary. Holy crap!

Alright, my apologies to the Smithsonian and to the basic concept of mathematics. That puts us safely past 19, with hopes that the Latino Museum will some day be less virtual and round it out to 20.

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Reader Comments (3)

You skipped the Natural History Museum, listed right on the Smithsonian's site between the Zoo and Portrait Gallery. There are in fact 19 museums... or 20, if one were so generous as to count the virtual museum, which it seems the SI wasn't trying to do.

It's quite surprising one would forgot the good old Natural History museum-- a huge one sitting right in the center of the Mall, and the one us locals lilkely visited the most (during many school field trips). Great post otherwise!

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan, Germantown

Thanks Ian. It's not surprising, it's straight up dumbfounding. Good catch!!! I will abstain from snark for a whole hour to punish myself.

July 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterTim Krepp

Great Post! I really liked the breakdown. It made me realize all of the Smithsonians I haven't had a chance to see- but I think Ill skip the virtual museum. Ashley, Travel Onion

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

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