The government shutdown disrupts a lot of things — government workers' earnings and federal services, for example — but it’s also a precarious situation for your social plans. That’s especially true if you have out-of-town visitors coming to the District: Many of the city’s best attractions, such as the Smithsonian museums, National Gallery of Art and the National Zoo, are closed indefinitely. What will you do with your disappointed nieces and nephews? Where will you take Great Aunt Mary, who traveled all this way?
Some federal institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the U.S. Botanic Garden, are already funded for the year and will be open as usual. But the Washington area is so much more than the Mall. For every shuttered museum or park, we’ve offered up an apt substitute that is privately run, thus not subject to the shutdown. They may not all be free, like the Smithsonians, but they offer new and different cultural or historical experiences, especially for seasoned Mall-goers. Or at least they’ll get you and your kids out of the house.
Making the process easier: Some museums, including the Phillips Collection, National Building Museum, the Newseum, President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Woodrow Wilson House, are offering free admission to any furloughed federal employee who shows a government ID.
Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of the hottest draws on the Mall, with free tickets taken weeks in advance. Its sister museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, takes a community-focused look at African American history. So does the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, which traces the African American experience in Maryland from colonial days through Harriet Tubman and Matthew Henson, and the Alexandria Black History Museum, where exhibitions honor local activists and explore the impact of slavery in the area. And unlike the African American Museum, neither requires you to plan ahead.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Wandering through the galleries at Glenstone, the private art museum that reopened in Potomac, Md., in October, you’ll come across some of the biggest names in 20th century art — Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Rauschenberg — arranged in a serene setting of “pavilions” around a lily pond. Glenstone sits on a 230-acre estate that doubles as an outdoor sculpture garden, with Jeff Koons’s 37-foot-high “Split-Rocker” as its signature piece. Free tickets for Glenstone are often reserved weeks in advance, but 72 free tickets are available every day for anyone who takes a Montgomery County Ride-On Bus from Rockville Metro Station to the museum.
National Air and Space Museum/Udvar-Hazy Center
Alternative: College Park Aviation Museum
The College Park Aviation Museum is a great way, even under normal circumstances, to avoid the crowds at the Air and Space Museum. It has crafts for kids, interactive displays, flight simulators, planes to climb on and, yes, a goodie bag for the little ones at the end of the visit.
National Gallery of Art
Alternative: Phillips Collection
The National Gallery may be bigger, but the Phillips Collection is where modern art got its start in the District. The museum was founded in 1921, 20 years before the National Gallery opened its doors. Spend some time with the Phillips’s permanent collection in lieu of a trip to the National Gallery of Art’s west building, and linger in the Rothko Room as an alternative to the east building.
National Museum of African Art
Alternative: The African Art Museum of Maryland
Masks, musical instruments, textiles and jewelry can be found in Fulton, where the African Art Museum of Maryland houses a collection of traditional and contemporary African artworks and objects. And the best part, for budget-conscious nonessentials? Admission is free.
National Museum of American History
Alternative: Mount Vernon
The father of our country is given his due at Mount Vernon, where interactive movies and displays on “The Real George Washington” supplement the usual uniforms, artifacts and historic furniture. Besides, the Smithsonian doesn’t have a working distillery — and George Washington’s Mount Vernon does. (For those of us whose favorite childhood memories of American History revolved around the train exhibit, the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore is the perfect substitute.)
National Museum of Natural History
Alternative: Maryland Science Center
If you’ve got children who go crazy for dinosaurs, take them to the Maryland Science Center’s Dinosaur Mysteries exhibit, where pint-size archaeologists can work in “dig pits,” touch dinosaur skulls and measure bones and footprints. The Science Center also features hands-on science experiments and an observatory with a telescope.
National Postal Museum
Trade one form of communication for another with a trip to the Newseum, where you can contemplate the First Amendment and the state of our news media, which will be endlessly dissecting the shutdown. While you’re there, head up to the terrace on the top floor for the best view of the Capitol building and give it your angriest glare. As noted above, admission is free for furloughed workers.
Alternative: National Aquarium in Baltimore
Very few animal exhibits can match seeing the National Zoo's pandas in person — unless it's coming face-to-face with sharks zipping around the National Aquarium's massive Blacktip Reef exhibition. The giant coral tanks and hundreds of fish will delight visitors of all ages.
Alternative: National Museum of Women in the Arts
The Renwick has become known for its crafty exhibits, many featuring handmade textiles. The current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is “Rodarte,” which looks at the complex, labor-intensive fashion designs created by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Also in the museum: a retrospective of 10 years of photobooks and photo 'zines created by female artists.
This article was originally published Sept. 30, 2013. It has been updated.