Here’s What’s New to Explore as Smithsonian Museums Reopen

Later this week, on September 25, the Smithsonian Institution will begin the next phase of its gradual reopening process by welcoming visitors back to two additional museums: the National Museum of American History and National Museum of the American Indian, both located on the National Mall. They will join six already-open museums and galleries, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Zoo in Rock Creek Park and the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Along the National Mall, visitors can now stroll the plaza surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum (which remains closed) and step down into the museum’s sculpture garden, where two new monument artworks were recently installed. The Smithsonian Gardens surrounding the many museums are also welcoming visitors.

“Adjusting to our “new normal” has been challenging,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch wrote in an email to staff last week as the Institution reopened the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and National Museum of African American History and Culture, “but I am heartened that we are able to carefully bring the Smithsonian and all it has to offer back to the public, both traditionally and digitally.”

New safety measures, like guidelines on floors, one-way paths and hand-sanitizing stations, are installed and visitors ages six and older are required to wear face masks. With the exception of the Renwick Gallery, visitors will need to reserve free timed-entry passes in advance, a measure instituted to limit crowding and ensure that visitors can enjoy the exhibitions and galleries with plenty of space for safe social distancing. Museum shops and cafes will also be closed. In a release, the Smithsonian announced the fooling safety measures, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are now inplace at all locations:

  • Requesting that all visitors who are sick or do not feel well stay home.
  • Requiring that visitors ages 6 and older wear face coverings during their visit. Face coverings are strongly recommended for visitors ages 2 and older, per CDC guidelines.
  • Closely monitoring and limiting the number of people in each museum. Visitors will need to obtain a free timed-entry pass in advance of their visit. Beginning today, visitors can reserve passes online or by phone and select the desired date and time for their visit.
  • Implementing safe social distancing, including one-way paths and directional guidance where appropriate.
  • Providing hand-sanitizing stations for visitors and conducting enhanced cleaning throughout all facilities.
  • Establishing maximum capacity for restrooms to accommodate safe social distancing.

​Sign up for free timed-entry passes.

Though museum doors were closed, curators were hard at work on some ambitious new offerings, and we’ve rounded up a few of the permanent exhibitions to check out, as well as some of the new shows to see at these four newly opened museums.

National Museum of American History

Constitution Avenue, NW between 12th and 14th Streets
Open Friday to Tuesday, 11–4, enter on Constitution Avenue

Explore the histories of girls who pioneered social movements and fought the status quo in the National Museum of American History’s new exhibition, “Girlhood! (It’s Complicated),” opening October 9, 2020. Five thematic sections, including education, work, news and politics, wellness, and fashion, showcase the lives of girls including Helen Keller and Naomi Wadler who advocated for social change and shaped history.

More than 60 artifacts that tell the story of the long-fought battle for women’s rights in the recently-opened exhibition, “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage.” The exhibition includes both historical and contemporary artifacts, from Susan B. Anthony’s silk shawl to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s gavel.

Other exhibitions and artifacts on view include Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, the Greensboro Lunch Counter, the gowns of the First Ladies and the centuries-old Star-Spangled Banner. Visitors can also find nostalgic favorites, like Julia Child’s kitchen and the famous Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Online visitors can join the museums’ Food History Weekend, “Food Futures: Striving for Justice,” a virtual journey through diverse histories, cultures and cuisines on the weekend of October 15-17.

To maintain safe social distancing, select portions of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War will be closed.

National Museum of the American Indian:

4th Street & Independence Ave., S.W.
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11–4

The National Museum of the American Indian’s ongoing highly acclaimed exhibition, “Americans,” is a must-see along with “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire” and “’Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations,” which tells the complicated history about the relationship between sovereign Indian Nations and the United States.

The museum’s location in New York City, the George Gustav Heye Center, remains closed.

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New safety measures, like guidelines on floors (above: the entry point to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery), one-way paths and hand-sanitizing stations. Visitors are required to wear face coverings. (SAAM)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

8th and G Streets NW
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 -7, enter at G Street

At the at the end of a long corridor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum beyond a pulled-back heavy burgundy brocade curtain, visitors will be treated to a full-scale mastodon skeleton that fills much of the rotunda-like space of the gallery. The fossil is the centerpiece of “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture,” which reveals how the American wilderness became emblematic of the country’s distinctive character. The signature show includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures, maps, artifacts and a mastodon skeleton.

Other shows on view include: “Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists;” “Sculpture Down to Scale: Models for Public Art at Federal Buildings, 1974-1985,” “Galleries for Folk and Self-Taught Art” and “Experience America.”

Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. will reopen Open Wednesday to Sunday for its regular hours of operation, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Renwick Gallery
Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 to 5:30

At the Renwick Gallery, enjoy the colorful and ephemeral shapes of the show, “Janet Echelman’s 1.8 Renwick,” a series of sculptures made from fibers and wire, inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. Also, on view “Connections: Contemporary Craft,” a look at the museum’s permanent collection with more than 80 artworks including the popular Ghost Clock by Wendell Castle and the curiously puzzling Bureau of Bureaucracy by Kim Schmahmann.

The museum will shortly present a new show “Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020,” opening October 16, which navigates the complex connections between the human world and the physical landscape and draws on a diverse group of artists and mediums.

John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis by Michael Shane Neal (NPG, gift from Jeffery and Cynthia Loring in memory of Congressman John Lewis. © Michael Shane Neal)

National Portrait Gallery
8th and G Streets NW
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30-7, enter at G Street

On view at the National Portrait Gallery is the new show “Visionary: The Cumming Family Collection,” featuring hyper-realist paintings by artist Robert McCurdy, including likenesses of Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, Jane Goodall, and Toni Morrison. Also newly installed is the exhibition “Her Story: A Century of Women Writers,” featuring the portraits of 24 of some of America’s most influential writers.

Visitors can take in the expansive 7-by-5 foot Danish masterpiece, Kunstdommere (Art Judges), by Michael Ancher, unveiled in January. The hundred-year-old painting is the focus of the “Portraits of the World: Denmark” exhibition, capturing personalities from the fishing-village-turned-artists’-colony.

The portraits of former First Lady Michelle Obama by artist Amy Sherald and former President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley are on view, along with the museum’s permanent shows “America’s Presidents” and “The Struggle for Justice,” where a newly acquired portrait of the late Congressman John Lewis by Michael Shane Neal has been installed.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
1400 Constitution Ave NW
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11-4

The National Museum of African American History and Culture begins a limited reopening of its gallery spaces, offering 250 passes per day before amping up to 1,100 per day by the end of the month. The museum’s permanent exhibitions include “Slavery and Freedom,A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, Cultural Expressions, its Visual Arts Gallery, showcasing African American art, its Sports gallery and the cylindrical fountain in the Contemplative Court. Please see Smithsonian magazine’s coverage of these showcase exhibitions in our special online feature “Breaking Ground.”

The Oprah Winfrey Theater and Corona Pavilion will remain closed, along with many of the museum’s popular interactives such as the Genealogy Database, the Neighborhood Record Sore and the Green Book display. Visitors will not be able to enter a number of the museum’s larger objects such as the segregated Southern Railway Car and the Edisto Island Slave Cabin.

For more on ticketing and other new health meaures, the Smithsonian offers an easy online platform to access all necessary information.

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