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Washington D.C. museums: Exhibits worth the trip

Washington gets knocked for lots of things: The soulless lobbyists of K Street; the feckless windbags of Capitol Hill; the wildly offensive name of its football team. But one thing the city has perhaps always gotten right is museums.

For almost 170 years, the Smithsonian Institution has been curating a cabinet of wonders that today comprises 19 museums and a zoo, where visitors can see remarkably cool stuff like Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis (National Air and Space Museum), the actual Star Spangled Banner (the National Museum of American History), and four giant pandas (the National Zoo).

And don't forget about the city's other troves of culture and history. There's the National Gallery of Art, where you'll find the only Leonardo da Vinci portrait in the Western Hemisphere; the Library of Congress, where you can explore the map that gave America its name; and the National Archives, where you can see our fading, founding documents.

And don't forget -- you can do all that for free. That's right: While several terrific Washington museums charge modest admission fees, like the Newseum and The Phillips Collection, you can easily spend the day dipping in and out of world-class galleries without ever dropping a dime.

So, where to begin? We created a list of what we think are engaging exhibits running now in the capital that your entire family might enjoy. Some have just opened, others are closing soon, and all of them are well worth the trip.

The Phillips Collection

On the first Thursday of every month, The
Photo Credit: The Phillips Collection

On the first Thursday of every month, The Phillips Collection gallery hosts a "Phillips After 5" event. After 5 p.m. admission is restricted to Phillips members and "After 5" ticket holders. To purchase tickets ($10-$12), visit the museum's website.

HOURS Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 12-7 p.m.; extended hours on Thursday to 8:30 p.m.

ADMISSION Adults $12, students $10, 62 and over $10, 18 and under free

INFO 202-387-2151, phillipscollection.org

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

EXHIBIT
Photo Credit: AP/ Carolyn Kaster

EXHIBIT "Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture From Paris to New York," through Feb. 15 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue at 7th Street, SW)

Even the most casual museumgoers are well acquainted with surrealist painting, but surrealist sculpture is perhaps somewhat less frequently encountered. In this exhibit, a rare and comprehensive view of the movement's sculpture, see more than 100 works by artists, including Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and, of course, Salvador Dalí.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

EXHIBIT
Photo Credit: Freer Gallery of Art

EXHIBIT "Sotatsu: Making Waves," through Jan. 31 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., SW)

Historians and scholars aren't entirely sure how a humble 17th century Kyoto fan shop owner rose to become one of the most influential figures in Japanese painting, but there's little argument why. Tawaraya Sotatsu's work is distinctive and timeless, and it's been inspiring and influencing Japanese artists for centuries. Featuring 70 pieces, some of which are part of the gallery's permanent collection, this exhibit is the only venue in the Western Hemisphere for this particular retrospective.

HOURS 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25 ADMISSION Free INFO 202-633-4880, asia.si.edu

National Museum of American History

EXHIBIT:
Photo Credit: Harold Dorwin, Smithsonian

EXHIBIT: "Hear My Voice: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound," through Jan. 31 at the National Museum of American History (14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW)

Scientists in California recently developed a way to retrieve sound from early recordings without destroying them, and they've been applying it to material Alexander Graham Bell and other recording pioneers donated to the Smithsonian more than a century ago. In this exhibit, you'll explore rare artifacts from Bell's Volta labs and hear Bell's actual voice -- counting, quoting "Hamlet" -- at a jukebox-style kiosk.

National Air and Space Museum

National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
Photo Credit: Above and Beyond

National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. features the "Above and Beyond" exhibit.

HOURS 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25

ADMISSION Free

INFO 202-633-2214, airandspace.si.edu

The Phillips Collection

EXHIBIT:
Photo Credit: AP / Marcy Nighswander

EXHIBIT: "Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks From Switzerland," through Jan. 10 at The Phillips Collection (1600 21st St., NW)

This is the exhibit that's perhaps generating the most buzz in Washington right now, as more than 60 works, on loan from Switzerland's Kunstmuseum Basel, make their only U.S. stop. The show includes paintings by towering Impressionist figures, such as Cézanne and Picasso, and it's also your last chance to see the Gauguin that fetched $300 million -- the highest amount ever paid for a painting -- before its new owner takes full possession.

National Air and Space Museum

EXHIBIT
Photo Credit: AP/ Andrew Harnik

EXHIBIT "Above and Beyond," through Jan. 3 at the National Air and Space Museum (Independence Avenue at Sixth Street, SW)

Prepare to be cleared for takeoff. Aimed at kids ages 7 to 14, this hands-on, highly interactive exhibit delivers an aeronautic adventure that won't disappoint. Early on, try the virtual flying experience, where you'll stand arms-outstretched before a motion-sensing screen that will turn you and the kids into birds. Later, among other activities, launch and pilot "Roboflyers" to learn about aircraft design. When it's all over, you may have a hard time coming down.

National Portrait Gallery

EXHIBIT
Photo Credit: AP/ Jacquelyn Martin

EXHIBIT "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze," through July 10 at the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F Streets, NW)

You may never actually look Katy Perry or Brad Pitt in the eye, but if something like that's on your bucket list, this exhibit is the next best thing. Featuring intimate and occasionally startling photographs, drawings and paintings of those who've made significant contributions to history and culture, "Eye Pop" explores notions of celebrity and fame.

Next door, at the American Art Museum, catch
Photo Credit: AP/ Douglas Graham

Next door, at the American Art Museum, catch a rare retrospective of renowned fashion photographer Irving Penn's work, "Beyond Beauty," on view for free until Mar. 20.

HOURS 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily except Dec. 25

ADMISSION Free

INFO 202-633-8300, npg.si.edu

The
Photo Credit: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The "Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York," the first major museum exhibition devoted to a comprehensive view of the movement’s three-dimensional works, opens Oct. 29 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

HOURS Museum: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25

ADMISSION Free

INFO 202-633-4674, hirshhorn.si.edu

The
Photo Credit: NeilGreentree

The "Sotatsu: Making Waves," exhibit will take place through Jan. 31 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

HOURS 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25

ADMISSION Free

INFO 202-633-4880, asia.si.edu

While you're at the National Museum of American
Photo Credit: AP / Steve Ruark

While you're at the National Museum of American History, don't miss the Lego American Flag, on view through Dec. 31.

HOURS 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25

ADMISSION Free

INFO 202-633-1000, americanhistory.si.edu

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