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Museums: One of the world's greatest collections of art and artifacts is just a day trip away. Here's a refresher course on the magnificent Smithsonian.

February 03, 2000|By Gina Kazimir | Gina Kazimir,Special to the Sun

It has everything from Archie Bunker's chair to a space capsule, sculpture by Rodin, Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves and the Hope Diamond. It's the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, our nation's cultural repository, visited by more than 30 million people a year.

It was established in 1846 by a bequest from James Smithson, a British scientist who never visited the United States and who also seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. His motives remain mysterious, but his extraordinarily generous gift has given our country one of the most amazing collections of artwork, artifacts and specimens in the world.

You're no doubt familiar with the National Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Natural History and the rest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. But did you know that the National Zoo, the National Postal Museum and even two museums in New York City also are part of the empire?

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum complex, with nine museums and galleries on the Mall; five more museums scattered throughout Washington; as well as the zoo and the New York museums. It also has a number of research centers and libraries.

There are more than 141 million items in the collections, with the bulk of them -- almost 124 million specimens and artifacts -- in the possession of the National Museum of Natural History.

Each facility houses a unique collection. Holdings range from some of the most well-known icons of American culture to contemporary crafts, African and Asian art and more. Several gardens are also located near the buildings and are open seasonally for tours.

Winter is an ideal time to visit the Smithsonian and discover some of its hidden gems. The heaviest visitor traffic is from April through Labor Day, so you may well have some of the museums to yourself if you go soon. To help you plan your visit, here's an overview of the main facilities.

Unless otherwise noted, the Washington museums and galleries are open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. except Dec. 25 and are free. (Several of the sites are closed temporarily for renovations.) You can contact the Smithsonian at 202-357-2700 (voice) or 202-357-1729 (TTY). For recorded information, call Dial-A-Museum at 202-357-2020 (English) or 202-633-9126 (Spanish). You can also visit the Smithsonian on the Web at www.si.edu.

Smithsonian Institution Building: Known as "the Castle," this building on the Mall houses the Smithsonian Information Center, two orientation theaters and administrative offices. It's an ideal place to start your visit. 1000 Jefferson Drive S.W.

Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture: The Anacostia Museum is a national resource devoted to increasing public understanding and knowledge of the African-American experience. The facility is closed for renovations (till spring 2001), but exhibits are being mounted in the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall. Through June 30, there is an exhibit of the works of noted African-American photographers, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840-1999." Call 202-287-2061 for recorded information on exhibitions. 1901 Fort Place S.E.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery: Focusing on Asian art, the Sackler Gallery features selections from its permanent collection and changing exhibits highlighting varied artistic traditions. Among the holdings are artworks from China, South and Southeast Asia, the Islamic world, Korea, Tibet and Japan. Opening April 30 is "Music in the Age of Confucius," an exhibit of 2,500-year-old instruments from the world's oldest musical ensemble. The collection is on view for the first time outside the People's Republic of China. 1050 Independence Ave. S.W.

Arts and Industries Building: This facility houses a permanent exhibit of materials acquired from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, including fire engines and carriages, and also features changing exhibits from other Smithsonian facilities. Its Discovery Theater stages performances for children in the summer months. The Anacostia Museum's exhibit, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840-1999," is on view through June 30. In addition, through March 26, there is "The Artistry of Orchids," a magnificent display of orchids, co-sponsored by the institution's Horticultural Services Division and the U.S. Botanic Gardens. 900 Jefferson Drive S.W.

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