I’ve never been a music person by nature. I grew up in the DC suburbs and went to a lot of the museums on field trips over the years. There was always a lot of standing and looking at objects I didn’t understand. I guess I’ve been more of a library person – when there’s a story right in front of you it always made more sense to me.
But Museums these days are changing. I look at it as that they used to be these great institutions where you can learn about places and things you couldn’t see yourself. But now the world is getting smaller and there’s more ways of experiencing information, and I think some museums are having trouble catching up. That being said I think there’s a growing number doing an awesome job with keeping to their mission while still creating that experience people crave (or at least I do). DC has so many museums to pick from but my favorite 5 in the area are as follows.
- National Building Museum
Ok this is cheating since I work here, but I really do think it’s one of the best. A museum about the built environment didn’t make sense to me until after I’d been working there awhile, but it’s really a versatile focus. The built environment covers so many things: building design, architecture, importance of play, immersive installations, urban planning, housing trends, and even some crazy materials being used today (skyscrapers made out of timber, whaaaat?).
The Museum in the summer is the real deal. Its annual Summer Block Party started with mini golf, where landscape architects made mini golf courses throughout the museum to showcase different landscape styles visitors could put put through. Then came The Big Maze, designed by “starchtect” Bjarke Engels. Then came Snarktecture’s The Beach, which pretty much changed everything for us. The Beach was essentially a giant white ball pit but was also immersive and gorgeous in photos. After that was Field Operations’ Icebergs, the Studio Gang’s Hive. This past summer was my personal favorite with Snarkitecture coming back to bring DC Fun House. Not only was Fun House an Instagram bonanza, but it also was matched with some of my favorite Exhibitions. Sociologist and data whiz Matthew Desmond partnered with us to create the exhibition Evicted, alongside an urban planning history exhibition called Secret Cities (all about the architecture of the Manhattan Project).
And for those who aren’t interested learning any of that can at least appreciate the old Pension Building’s Great Hall.
2. African American History Museum
This is the first Museum I tell people to visit if they’re going anywhere in a 100 mile radius of DC. It’s the most beautiful and well thought out museum I’ve ever been in. While
it took awhile for it to be added to Smithsonian’s museums on the mall, I can only guess it took awhile for coordinating the massive scale of collections, history, and designing the building itself.
The building was designed by (my favorite) David Adjaye and is comprised of three stacked volumes. Each layer is covered in latticed bronze plates perforated with patterns that reference the history of African American craftsmanship. It also includes a triple-height gallery and theatre set underground.
You start at the bottom and learn the history of slavery. the rooms are dark and crowded, intentionally. Then as you walk up the sloping ramps, you literally walk through history, through interactive storytelling of civil rights, and eventually up to the top. The top levels include some of the most insane collections from African American culture, including donations from Michael Jordan, Prince, Opera, and so so many more. Writing this does no justice for how intentionally the museum was designed and curated.
Glenstone doesn’t exist on the same planet as most other museums. If you’re a billionaire art collector who decides they want to open a museum leaving no expense unturned. Well, thanks.
The modern art museum blends post World War II art, architecture, and landscape architecture on a 230-acre campus in Potomac, Maryland. The museum is free, thought tickets are limited. The real deal is going to see architect Thomas Phifer’s new expansion The Pavilion. If you make the drive you’ll park in the cedar grove, walk past the 37-foot-tall Jeff Koons, and stroll into the gorgeously granite building. Recluse Emily and Mitchell Rales, the collectors, worked to have Glenstone embody “slow art.”
The spaces are quiet, they limit the number of people moving through its spaces per hour. The docents won’t narrate a long art history lesson rather ask and receive questions about the artists and works. Even the lighting filters through slowly, calming you down, mysteriously having you slip you phone into your pocket to tag a long look at a Louise Bourgeois piece.