The art institutions in this major American metropolis surprise and inspire at every turn.
New York and LA boast headline-grabbing institutions but for sheer variety, no city can match Washington DC. With more than 150 million objects held across 21 museums and galleries, the Smithsonian is by far the largest museum complex in the world. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in America's capital, where handsome government buildings and monuments are surrounded by more than 70 museums covering everything from architecture and the founding of Scientology to the nation's fraught relationship with its First Nations peoples. Here are six of the most fascinating spots to visit on your next trip to America's capital city.
Words of wisdom
If you've ever wondered why the word "run" has 645 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, or how the words "neighbour", "physics", and "husband" are related, then a museum of language is an easy sell. For everyone else, it may come as a pleasant surprise just how much fun you can have while examining the mechanics of English through songwriting, advertising and humour.
Billed as "the museum where language comes to life", Planet Word opened in 2020 and is a blast for kids. It's also very enjoyable (and educational) for adults thanks to a highly interactive format that makes liberal use of technology. Spend an afternoon striking poses to obscure adjectives in the photobooth and belting out tunes in the karaoke room while learning how Snoop Dogg used the poetic concept of chiasmus, and it's easy to forget you're in a museum. planetwordmuseum.org
Art v science
ArtecHouse's dizzying blend of art, science and technology begins with an "immersion gallery" where 18K projectors beam moving artworks onto the walls and floor. An in-house studio of composers, coders, engineers and mathematicians pushes the equipment to its absolute limits and with 122 million pixels and a 22.5 channel sound array, the level of detail in the mesmerising lightshow is simply astonishing.
The design concepts change quarterly, so you could find yourself walking through a kaleidoscopic waterfall of butterflies or a pitch-black room illuminated by webs of lasers, and the adjoining cocktail bar creates a new themed drinks list for each exhibition. More interactive displays make use of XR (eXtended Reality) and motion capture technology and because the works are visually spectacular but light on descriptions, an hour is plenty of time to take it all in. artechouse.com
The dark contradiction at the heart of "the land of the free" is that 12 of the first 18 presidents were slave owners. In all, 12.5 million individuals were trafficked from Africa to the Americas as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and while the numbers are often shocking, the National Museum of African American History and Culture excels at colouring in the broad strokes with vivid individual stories.
Deeply moving exhibits take visitors from the genesis of the Slave Trade through Reconstruction, the civil rights era and the Black Lives Matter movement, providing vignettes of everyday black life along the way. Add in more celebratory galleries showcasing the outsized contribution of African Americans to sports, music, science and popular culture and you can easily spend an entire day here, with a stop at the onsite Sweet Home Café to fuel up on southern classics like fried chicken with collards and cornbread. nmaahc.si.edu
House of secrets
If the Smithsonian is America's attic, the O Museum in the Mansion is more like the neighbour's storage unit, a cluttered space filled to the brim with a wildly mixed bag of treasures.
There are no maps showing the way through these five adjoining houses in the cosmopolitan Dupont Circle neighbourhood. Instead, guests are free to roam more than 100 themed rooms stuffed with everything from crystal chandeliers to Prince's Purple Rain jacket and a nightmarish gallery of laughing clowns.
To make matters even more interesting, the property is littered with 70 secret doors disguised as mirrors, bookcases and even a fridge. Everything on display is for sale (with all proceeds funding a range of onsite concerts and artists in residence), and you can even stay the night in a range of themed rooms including a two-storey log cabin filled with Western art and a John Lennon room with original drawings, letters and Beatles memorabilia. omuseum.org/visit
On entering the International Spy Museum, you'll be given a secret identity and undercover mission that prompts you to collect intelligence and hone your secret agent skills as you journey through the building. Along the way, you'll also pass hundreds of exhibits on espionage through the ages, from the Trojan Horse to Harpo Marx's surprising career as a spy.
The glamour of Bond-style gadgets is offset with more confronting exhibits examining morally dubious intelligence gathering techniques, but the overall tenor is very kid-friendly. And because this is one of the few museums open after 5pm, it's a good one for late risers. www.spymuseum.org
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Few nations excel at mythmaking like the US, and the National Museum of American History tells the nation's stories through a frankly incredible collection of props that show how modern America (and the world) has been shaped by factors as varied as food, transport, war, race relations and popular culture. Real and fictional characters get equal billing, so Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves shares space with the robe used in Rocky, and Judy Garland's red slippers from The Wizard of Oz sit a floor above the kitchen where Julia Child cooked for 40 years.
And because the museum is divided into more than 20 separate exhibitions, it's easy to dip in and out without becoming overwhelmed. americanhistory.si.edu
The writer travelled with assistance from Destination DC and Brand USA.