Visiting the Smithsonian during the pandemic can feel like passing through a ghost town. At the handful of museums that have reopened, there are directions to meeting places for tours that will not take place. There are signs listing hours for cafes that are closed. (Pro-tip: pack granola bars.) There are bare shelves, shuttered theaters, darkened screens, shadowy hallways, and empty chairs in want of lethargic tourists and overeager tour guides. Still, there is some small, glimmering sense that you are encountering something — what? Different? New? Spontaneous?
Over the past few weeks, I visited all the reopened Smithsonian museums (not including the National Zoo, which also reopened this summer) and considered two questions: What is the value of a museum at a time when venturing into public can pose a health risk? What can you get from walking through a museum that you can’t get from the Internet — or a book?
Online, we’ve grown accustomed to being fed information tailored, by algorithm, to the most predictable version of our tastes. In books, we seek information rationally — guided by chapter titles and indexes. But museums are unique in that they impart ideas physically.
At a museum, you learn about a treaty because the intriguing beads of a wampum belt drew you in. You study a sculpture by Alexander Calder because it happened to be next to a painting by Helen Frankenthaler. You wind up in an exhibit about tiny model cars because it was adjacent to one about a Prussian scientist.
Spontaneity is one of the many intangible casualties of the pandemic. There’s no “stopping by” or “bumping into” or “just because” in a world devastated by a deadly virus. We’ve lost the everyday joy of stumbling upon sights and sounds, people and ideas. But museums depend on that simple fact: that you are body in space, bound to collide with the things they have arranged for you.
If you’re up for visiting one of these institutions, it might just bring back a hint of that serendipity.
National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and G streets NW
At the two museums that share a building in Chinatown, you can exchange glances with one George Washington (or several), walk alongside the skeleton of a mastodon — more on this below — worship at a tinfoil altar and, after weeks watching maps on TV, watch dozens of TVs on a map (courtesy of Nam June Paik’s video installation “Information Superhighway”). With both the National Museum of Natural History and the Hirshhorn Museum still closed (except for the sculpture garden; see On Exhibit), there’s something here to satisfy those missing the fossil hall and avant-garde art alike.
While other Smithsonian museums have closed certain exhibits and public spaces, these two remain mostly open. With a floor plan that surrounds a central Courtyard — still open, although tables and chairs have been removed, leaving only the marble benches that surround the courtyard’s planters — there are few dead ends, keeping people moving. Should you feel overwhelmed, there are several quiet retreats, including my go-to: the installation/light show “Snails Space with Vari-Lites, ‘Painting as Performance,’ ” by David Hockney.
On the upper floors, narrow corridors make it easy to bump into people on their way out of a side gallery. But, the long, art-filled passageways keep crowds dispersed. You could have a worthwhile visit without ever leaving the hallways.
On the first floor, the “Experience America” show has an open floor plan and is probably the most conducive to social distancing. And it’s fitting: Edward Hopper, the star painter of our pandemic lives, for his scenes of isolation, makes two appearances in the exhibition, with the yearning “Cape Cod Morning” and the hushed “Ryder’s House.”
The exhibition Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture takes a wide-angle approach to art, filling galleries with a hodgepodge of artifacts: maps, nature scenes, portraits — and that mastodon skeleton. The Prussian naturalist and explorer von Humboldt saw art as a pursuit both scientific and aesthetic, and the show looks at how his writings informed the work of such landscape artists as Frederic Edwin Church.
During von Humboldt’s lifetime (1769-1859), the United States was having an identity crisis. (Sound familiar?) The show examines how such paintings as Church’s Niagara Falls helped to make a landmark not just iconic but to situate it within the country’s national story. At a time when the arts are under threat, the show lends credence to an idea: Artists don’t merely depict our nation, but help create our understanding of it.
As you walk through the American Art Museum’s galleries, it is not uncommon to find yourself alone with the art, charting a vertiginous Wayne Thiebaud landscape here or cherishing the optical joys of the Washington Color School’s Gene Davis over there. On the Portrait Gallery side, the often-overcrowded presidential galleries benefit from visitor limits as well. On a recent visit, I was able to see Kehinde Wiley’s popular portrait of Barack Obama without waiting in a line fit for a ride at Disney World.
Recent history warrants a visit to two portraits in particular: “The Four Justices,” Nelson Shanks’s group portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan; and Michael Shane Neal’s portrait of Rep. John Lewis, included in “The Struggle for Justice.”
Perhaps the timeliest work on view right now is “Justice for Our Lives,” a series of digital portraits of victims of police brutality, created by Oree Originol. Displayed as a colorful mural on the first floor, the open-source images from the ongoing portrait project have been adapted into billboards, projections and even postage stamps. Originol’s collaborative, socially engaged piece is art by, for and of 2020.
Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Info and maps: americanart.si.edu/visit/saam.
National Museum of American History
1300 Constitution Ave. NW
I was staring at a large video screen for several seconds in the atrium of the National Museum of American History before I realized that the woman in a Smithsonian-branded polo shirt was staring back at me. “I’m real,” she said. “You can come over.”
I approached cautiously, as if this increasingly ordinary, Zoom-like encounter were with an alien. The woman — a volunteer guide working from home, as it turned out — broke the ice, joking, “I feel like I should have a mask on.” The volume on the TV was loud, and our conversation — during which she facetiously suggested that I sneak a peek at one of the closed exhibitions — boomed throughout the room like an airport boarding announcement.
The museum is strict about where you enter and exit. Once inside, however everything else is more of a free-for-all. The smallest galleries — such as the room in which Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are displayed — have limited occupancy. But other, more claustrophobic exhibits, such as the life-size reconstruction of a 200-year-old Massachusetts house — will take more than signage about masks and scheduled ticketing to feel safe.
If, like me, you’re more of an art person, the American History Museum is not at the top of your to-do list. But don’t miss “Girlhood (It’s Complicated).” Illustrated with vibrant art by Krystal Quiles, the new exhibition looks at how a girl’s behavior, long before she is of voting age, can have political power. Alongside such objects as the scarf worn by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler at the 2018 March for Our Lives, the curators have placed objects from more ordinary occasions: Isabell Aiukli Cornell’s prom dress — an indigenous-themed design, made to honor missing and murdered Native American women, that went viral — is the central object in a section about fashion. Also included: the outfit that earned Jilly Towson a violation of her high school’s dress code in 2016, as well as “scandalous” images, from the early 20th century, of women not wearing corsets beneath their clothes. The social awareness and inclusiveness of this show is not always so prominent in the rest of the museum.
Striving for — and sometimes falling short of — cultural relevance, the museum mirrors the awkward cultural transitions that are taking place on the national stage. If you’re open to exploring a floor plan that is less than ideal for social distancing, “Girlhood” offers a glimpse of where this museum might be heading.
Hours: Open Friday-Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info and maps: americanhistory.si.edu/visit.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
1400 Constitution Ave. NW
In the Before Time, visitors to the newest Smithsonian outpost would begin their visit by packing into an elevator, body to body. Today, while crowding into an enclosed space is unthinkable, your experience at the African American Museum is still shaped by architecture: The winding, tunnellike galleries give way to high-ceilinged halls. Compressions and expansions of space punctuate your emotions. This can make for a deeply moving experience. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, it can also be anxiety-inducing.
To mediate this and encourage traffic flow in the mazelike galleries, staff have turned off video displays and closed such exhibits as the segregated railway car and the interactive Greensboro lunch counter. During busy hours, entering the lower-level history galleries can require waiting in a long, socially distanced line.
In a museum packed with enough long-buried history to fill a full week of visits, the new 4 p.m. closing time can quickly creep up on you. Planning is key. Visit on a weekday, if possible.
The layout is organized around two different principles. On the upper floors, it’s thematic: art, sports, music, etc. Downstairs, it’s chronological. But there’s plenty of overlap: The upper-level galleries, which have more open layouts, tend to be less crowded. So if you have a pass for late in the day, or if you find there’s a long line to enter the lower levels, it makes sense to head upstairs. You’ll miss out on such highlights as Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Nat Turner’s Bible, but instead you’ll see history from another perspective: through a painting by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald or a the swimsuit worn by Simone Manuel at the 2016 Olympics, or by immersing yourself in the re-creation of Mae Reeves’s Philadelphia hat shop.
If you do make it downstairs, look for a display about the 2000s at the very end. It looks like an ordinary glass case, showing handcuffs and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But look to the right and you’ll see a voting machine from the controversial 2000 presidential election. To the left, there’s a rescue boat from Hurricane Katrina. This is curation at its most artistic. Seemingly disparate objects are create a picture of the subtle kinds of discrimination that shape our country to this day.
Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info and maps: nmaahc.si.edu/visit.
National Museum of the American Indian
Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW
As you approach this museum, — its organic, curving limestone seeming to rise up from the earth, as if carved by wind — the building is so integrated with the landscape it makes the rest of the Mall look contrived.
Once you enter, the four-story-tall Potomac Atrium seems to swallow up sound, an acoustical phenomenon that, in the days before the pandemic, might have merely underscored its emptiness. But these days, empty means breathable and comfortable — feelings reinforced by the natural light trickling in from the overhead oculus window (and, at certain times of day, a rainbow cast by a southern-facing prism window). Despite the museum’s famously nonlinear storytelling, its exhibit halls — the ones that are open anyway — have clearly delineated pathways through them. In terms of covid-19 precautions, American Indian Museum feels closer to the spacious Udvar-Hazy Center than, say, the American History Museum.
Currently, offerings are limited. Many exhibit areas are closed and, in the ones that are open, videos and interactive displays have been turned off. This affects the experience in different ways: It’s not a big deal that you can’t touch the llama fur while learning about transit on Inka roads. But the artifacts on display in “Americans” — a gallery that explores the depiction of Native Americans in advertising and mass media — are missing context without an interactive to explain what you’re looking at. While it’s interesting to see how much has changed in the past eight months — a notable inclusion in “Americans” is the former mascot of the Washington Football Team, stitched onto a stuffed bear — the exhibit is better viewed online. By contrast, “Nation to Nation” a text-heavy show that you might have felt rushed to take in before, has plenty of ideas and information to fill an entire visit.
But one of the most compelling parts of a visit to this museum doesn’t require a pass — or even going inside. The outdoor gardens represent what the American landscape looked like before it was colonized. Walking through them, the broader backdrop of the Mall seems to dissolve into the sound of a trickling waterway, the monuments fade beneath the shadows of 33,000 plant species. For a moment, Washington, as we have come to know it, seems far away.
Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info and maps: americanindian.si.edu/visit.
National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly
The Mall outpost of this museum — which remains closed for renovation — could fit inside the cavernous main hangar of the museum’s Chantilly annex. But during a recent visit to Udvar-Hazy, there were so few visitors, the space felt even larger — and oddly quiet. You could hear the hum of ventilators and feel the air moving. It almost felt like being outside.
Chairs for visitors — mostly unused — have been moved six feet apart. Some artifacts are veiled in black sheets. A handful of planes have been draped in plastic bags for an ongoing renovation of the roof, and the Imax theater and McDonald’s restaurant are closed (the latter will eventually reopen as a Shake Shack). It almost feels like the museum is still closed. In other words, it feels quite safe.
An elevated walkway positions you at eye-level with suspended planes, functioning like a pandemic-conscious highway. Arrows indicate the direction of travel, and fellow visitors can be spotted from a distance and safely avoided.
Getting timed passes is easy, with hundreds available, often for the day you request them. Unlike an art museum, where crowds sometimes form around a single painting, air and space craft are, by necessity, far apart and organized by function, so you don’t need to follow a chronology or narrative. Each object tells a tale unto itself, and you can hop from one to another as social distancing requires.
Safety aside, there was something sad about looking at vehicles of adventure, when adventure feels so out of reach. Visitors on a recent Tuesday described the museum as lonely, even somber.
If you find yourself envying the passengers of the Concorde — which could fly from the U.S. to Europe in under four hours, at blistering speed — or the bold pilot of the Standard Astir III — who flew so high his eyes watered and teardrops turned to icicles — the space section’s Mobile Quarantine Facility will bring you back to earth. After returning from the moon, Apollo 11 astronauts stayed in it for more than three days. Stiff, yellowing chairs, six crammed beds, no WiFi or TV. Suddenly your pandemic setup doesn’t look so bad.
Hours: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Info and maps: airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center.
1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
With no timed passes required, this gallery dedicated to American craft is the easiest of the reopened museums to visit these days — assuming you can find the entrance (hidden down a side ramp along 17th Street NW). It may also be the one that makes the best case for visiting in person.
The small outpost of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with just two floors and a handful of galleries, is currently showing several immersive installations that engage physical space in a way a digital experience cannot. For the biennial invitational “Forces of Nature,” artist Rowland Ricketts contributes a curved wall of indigo-colored fabrics he farmed himself, displayed to soothing music that is created, in real-time, by an algorithm. In the next room, an all-black sculptural landscape by Lauren Fensterstock features an inky black “pond” whose reflective surface resembles thick, oily water, bedazzled clouds and jewelry-like rain, a nod to the way weather is used as metaphor.
Upstairs, that symbolism is given light: Janet Echelman’s installation “1.8 Renwick” — made of 51 miles of luminescent twine and projected light — changes colors to the pace of a sunset. Displayed in the Grand Salon, the work evokes enthusiastic, rippling waves or bright storm clouds pressed forward by strong winds. But modeled after data from a devastating earthquake in Tohoku, Japan — so powerful it tilted Earth’s axis slightly and shortened the length of the day by 1.8 millionths of a second — the work is literally an image of tragedy.
The tragedy we’re currently living through is of a different kind. And yet one has the nagging sense it tilts some internal axis, shortening our days (maybe even our lives) a little bit. Especially as the nights grow longer and the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel seems more elusive than ever, the shifting light in Echelman’s work — like a sunset that seems to slow time — rocks such existential woes to sleep.
Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Info and maps: americanart.si.edi/visit/renwick.
If you go
All reopened Smithsonian museums except the Renwick require timed-entry passes and can be reserved up to 30 days in advance through each museum’s website. Entry is allowed up to 30 minutes before scheduled time. Face coverings are required for visitors 6 and older, and strongly recommended for visitors between ages 2 and 6.
Hand-sanitizer stations are available throughout each museum. Not all exhibits are open; consult each museum’s website for a detailed floor plan before visiting.
All restaurants, cafes and concessions are closed. Gift shops are open at all museums except Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery and the Renwick.
All museums are closed Nov. 26, Dec. 24-25 and Jan. 20. Admission to all museums is free.