Museums for your holiday visitors: Where (and why) to take your family and friends

November 15, 2012

Houseguests come in many varieties, and around the holidays, they come with greater frequency. And they need to be entertained. What are you going to do with your relatives, old roommates and long-lost friends when they come calling this year?

In a region filled with so many cultural offerings, museums are always a safe bet. But they’re not one size fits all. Your aunt may love the National Gallery of Art — the West Wing, thank you very much — but she wouldn’t be caught dead in the Hirshhorn’s Black Box theater. Then, there’s your 14-year-old twin cousins. The zoo again? Really?

I considered your options and your audience and came up with several recommendations.

This list is tailored to five broad types, from the hipster to the traditionalist, and from the wide-eyed kid to the grown-up who has seen everything. Photography fans get a special nod in a city where you can find so much good camera work.

There is a safe bet for each type of visitor. But there also is a best best: more of an insider’s tip than a guidebook recommendation. As a bonus, you’ll find an additional recommendation of a nearby museum or show as well as a good restaurant to try.

The traditionalist: Wears reading glasses and sensible shoes. Not exactly closed-minded, but sniffs at anything made in the past 100 years.

Safe bet: Masterpieces of French Impressionism, including Renoir’s iconic “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” make up the heart of the Phillips Collection , 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org.

Best bet: Open since October, “Masterpieces of American Furniture From the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830” is the National Gallery of Art’s first permanent installation of furniture and decorative art. The exhibition pairs fine craftsmanship with paintings from the permanent collection by American artists such as Gilbert Stuart. National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Sixth Street NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.

In the neighborhood: Walk through the tunnel to the National Gallery’s East Building to see “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective.” I know, I know, it’s modern art. But the cartoonish pop master was actually a painting purist.

Where to eat: Garden Cafe. The American menu by chef Cathal Armstrong complements the furniture show. Ground floor of the National Gallery’s West Building.

The hipster: Can still fit into skinny jeans. Uses words like “investigate” and “subvert” without referring to congressional hearings.

Safe bet: At the Art Museum of the Americas, “ The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art” celebrates public-practice-based art, which often looks more like activism than art. Through Jan. 13. 201 18th St. NW. 202-458-6016. www.amamuseum.org .

Best bet: One of the most avant-garde shows in town is at the Renwick Gallery , the Smithsonian’s museum of American craft and decorative arts. Don’t think stodgy vases and bowls. “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” boasts Nick Dong’s interactive “Enlightenment Room,” a tile-lined chamber where one visitor at a time experiences Tibetan chanting and the gradual blast of more than 600 LED lights. Through Feb. 3 at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut North, Farragut West). 202-633-7970. www.americanart.si.edu/renwick.

In the neighborhood: Part photography, part anthropology, “Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII” uses portraiture to examine religion, race, politics and the meaning of family. Through Feb. 24. Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org.

Where to eat: Bombay Club. Authentic Indian food, plus happy-hour discounts on drinks and small plates. 815 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-659-3727. www.bombayclubdc.com.

The know-it-all : Been there, done that. “Show me something I haven’t seen,” says this tough customer, who has been to every Washington museum, twice.

Safe bet: With its somewhat macabre display of body parts, the recently relocated National Museum of Health and Medicine is more than a museum novelty. It’s a sober-minded look at the history of science and medicine. 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring (Metro: Forest Glen). 301-319-3300. www.medicalmuseum.mil.

Best bet: The Kreeger Museum is easily overlooked because it’s in a residential neighborhood. But it’s worth a trip. Now on view: “Dan Steinhilber: Marlin Underground,” a remarkable sound-and-sculpture installation featuring the “music” of such instruments as a space heater and a Ping-Pong table. You haven’t seen or heard anything like it. Through Dec. 29. 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. 202-337-3050. www.kreegermuseum.org .

In the neighborhood: The American University Museum has six intriguing shows open, including one not-to-be-missed exhibition spotlighting the ingenious, almost magical sculpture of Matthew Kenyon. Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.
edu/museum
.

Where to eat: Cozy Belgian bistro Et Voila!, 5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 202-237-2300. www.etvoiladc.com.

The kid: Younger than 18. Fidgety. Master of the sarcastic eye roll.

Safe bet: National Air and Space Museum. Airplanes, spaceships, simulators and a McDonald’s. Need I say more? Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-2214. www.airandspace.si.edu.

Best bet: Pack up the kids and head to Baltimore for “The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor and Truth.” Not only is the American Visionary Art Museum show a celebration of the overactive imagination, but the museum also boasts the best gift shop in the world. Through Sept. 1. 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410-244-1900. www.avam.org.

In the neighborhood: On Saturday, the Baltimore Museum of Art unveils its renovated, reinstalled Contemporary Wing. North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 443-573-1700. www.artbma.org.

Where to eat: Mr. Rain’s Fun House, on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, doesn’t do chicken nuggets, but it does have three kinds of hot dogs.

The shutterbug: Owns more than one camera, not including smartphone. Sees the world through Instagram, Flickr.

Safe bet: At the Newseum, “The Eyes of History 2012” features more than 70 examples of 2011’s most arresting photojournalism from members of the White House News Photographers Association. Through March 29. 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 888-639-7386. www.newseum.org.

Best bet: Most people think of contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as a sculptor. And the 3-D works on view in “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” are jaw-dropping. But so are the photographs on display: roughly 8,000, including 7,677 in rotating view on 12 video monitors. You’ll also want to snap some of your own shots of the artist’s sculptures, which include the massive, chandelier-like “Cube Light.” ­­­Through Feb. 24. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW. 202-633-1000. www.hirshhorn.
si.edu
.

In the neighborhood: Pop over to the National Gallery of Art for “The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last 100 Years.” The group exhibition rounds up photographers who shoot the same subject, over and over, in interesting ways. Through Dec. 31.

Where to eat: The Source. The Newseum’s in-house restaurant, curated by Wolfgang Puck. 575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-637-6100. www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3941.

More from the holiday guide:

Washington D.C. visitor’s guide

Holiday activities

Best bets for holiday shopping

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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