Insider's Guide to Museums: Adventure Learning

Education that goes to far-off lands and behind the scenes

By: Ann Cochran

Bethesda writer Ann Cochran (traveltales@comcast.net) often covers travel and lifestyle topics.

There's more to museum education than lectures by tweed-clad scholars. It offers behind-the-scenes exclusives, exotic travel, and chats with Washington VIPs.

The 40-year-old Smithsonian Resident Associates (202-357-3030; residentassociates.org), the big daddy of museum education, runs hundreds of courses and programs, most inspired by the collections of Smithsonian's 15 branches. Topics include writing and photography, medicine, calligraphy, forensics, the Bible, wine, and even weight loss.

Field trips include birding along the Patuxent River and touring Manhattan architecture. Among the headliners in upcoming lectures are novelist and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, travel writer Bill Bryson, and historian Taylor Branch, commenting on LBJ's White House tapes.

The Corcoran College of Art & Design (500 17th St., NW; 202-639-1801; corcoran.edu), part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, sponsors associate's-degree and master's-degree programs in art, design, photography, and teaching. Master's programs in interior design and the history of decorative arts are run in partnership with the Smithsonian (202-786-3229; DecArts@tsi.sa.edu).

Students work in the museum with exhibitions and artists. Degree candidates in decorative arts have access to the Corcoran and Smithsonian collections and study at Sotheby's in London.

The Corcoran offers noncredit courses, from a basic "I've Never Held a Pencil" drawing class ($615 for 15 three-hour sessions) to advanced techniques.

Get a wildlife-studies certificate at the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-673-4800; fonz.org/wildlifecert.htm). Scientists and zoo researchers teach about wildlife, animal habitats, and the zoo's conservation work and research. $100 for six classes, $75 for members.

The National Firearms Museum (11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax; 703-267-1600; nra.nationalfirearms.museum) hosts lectures on gun-collecting topics--such as the guns of Lewis and Clark and preserving firearms--on the fourth Thursday of every month at 7 PM. Free; reservations suggested.

Smithsonian Journeys (877-338-8687 or 202-357-4700; smithsonianjourneys.org) runs tours to locales worldwide, including Galápagos, Poland, and Greenland. There are 20 train trips, including an eight-day excursion on American Orient Express vintage railcars through the antebellum South (from $3,000) and a 16-day journey through southern India (about $10,000 including airfare). You weren't a Rhodes scholar? Spend 12 days studying at Oxford and visiting nearby sights ($5,000).

National Geographic Expeditions (888-966-8687; nationalgeographic.com/ngexpeditions) is known for its photography workshops--this year in Santa Fe, Tuscany, Scotland, Mexico, and Tibet--and has a long roster of expert-led adventures in Antarctica, Baja, China, Utah's Zion National Park, and other exotic spots. One archaeologist takes travelers on a 13-day Mediterranean cruise to Malta, Libya, and Tunisia (from $7,000). Summer domestic and international family trips include plenty of hands-on activities.

For Kids

Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (1901 Fort Pl., SE; 202-287-3306; anacostia.si.edu) runs after-school and summer programs led by museum authorities, Smithsonian experts, and local artists, illustrators, and writers. Hosted by churches in Southeast DC, the programs aim to improve reading, research, creative writing, and artistic skills. For ages 5 to 14. Free.

The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum (10001 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-897-1518; ratnermuseum.com) organizes children's birthday parties that include teaching kids about the Hebrew Bible. $180 for two hours for up to 20 children.

At Hillwood Museum and Gardens (4155 Linnean Ave., NW; 202-686-5807; hillwoodmuseum.org), Girl Scouts earn badges while exploring the museum's gardens and world-class collection of fine and decorative arts from France and imperial Russia. Girls make Fabergé-style jewelry boxes for the scout Jeweler badge and plan a miniature Japanese-style garden to earn the Outdoor Creativity badge. Two-hour sessions cost $8 per scout; three chaperones are free for every 15 scouts. Reservations required.

The Kreeger Museum (2401 Foxhall Rd., NW; 202-337-3050; kreegermuseum.org) hosts a monthly children's story time that includes craft making and exploration of the museum's collection, which includes works by Monet, Rodin, Picasso, and other 19th- and 20th-century artists. Occasional Saturday workshops for 8- to 12-year-olds are led by painter Susan Hostetler. $12 through August, $20 after.

The Corcoran College of Art & Design (500 17th St., NW; 202-639-1801; corcoran.edu) hosts Saturday classes in the fall and spring for children and teens on cartooning, architecture, drawing, painting, and mosaic art. Fees vary.

The National Building Museum (401 F St., NW; 202-272-2448; nbm.org) recruits professionals and university students to serve as mentors for students ages 11 to 15 exploring and documenting neighborhoods by photographing the boundaries, parks, and landmarks. The seventh- through tenth-graders design and build an exhibition of their work. The program runs Tuesdays and Thursdays July 5 through August 4. DC public-school students are encouraged to apply. Free.--

National Zoo Eco-Explorers (202-673-1688; fonz.org/eco-explorers.htm) is a research-based travel program for teens to learn about wildlife-related careers and work in conservation efforts. This year's Amazon rain-forest trip to Peru ($2,898) is July 23 to 31.

Coming Up

May 7--Tudor Place (1644 31st St., NW; 202-965-0400; tudorplace.org) reviews 200 years of table settings, etiquette, and social customs. After a 20-minute walk to Anderson House (2118 Massachusetts Ave., NW; 202-785-2040; www.hereditary.us/cin_anderson.htm), tea is served, and the group tours the Beaux Arts mansion where the political and social elite around the turn of the century wined and dined. $20; $15 for members of Tudor Place or Society of Cincinnati. Reservations required.

May 15--The International Spy Museum (800 F St., NW; 202-654-0930; spymuseum.org) recruits aspiring spies ages 10 to 14 to learn the science of espionage: the chemistry behind invisible inks, mechanics of concealed cameras, and electronics of eavesdropping and surveillance. $25; $22 for museum members.

June 4--The National Museum of the American Indian (Fourth St. and Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000; americanindian.si.edu) hosts its Family Day focused on young Native Americans. Authors of a series of children's books will read and discuss Native American history and life today. Children and young adults from several tribes--including the Piscataways in the Chesapeake area--will be on hand along with John Harrington, an American Indian photographer who was covering the White House at age 23. Free.

June 4 and 5--At the Celebration of Textiles at the Textile Museum (2320 S St., NW; 202-667-0441; textilemuseum. org), you can watch sheep-shearing and try your hand at spinning the wool into yarn or making a felt pouch. Free.

June 25 to September 4--With the opening of "East Meets West" at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St., NW; 202-387-2151; phillipscollection.org), adults and children can participate in a tea ceremony and hunt for treasures among woodblock prints that depict stops along Japan's fabled 19th-century Tokaido route. $6 to $8; members and under 18 free.

July 9 and 10--The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Jefferson Dr. and 12th St., SW; 202-633-4880; www.asia.si.edu) host a celebration of Vietnamese art and culture with performances, demonstrations, and children's programs. Free.

August 12 to 14--The National Museum of the American Indian (877-830-3224 or 301-238-3023; americanindian.si.edu) hosts a National Powwow at the MCI Center. More than 800 dancers and dozens of native drum groups from North America are expected to compete for $100,000 in prize money. Native artisans will sell fine art, jewelry, pottery, and other work. $10 to $12; tickets go on sale in May.

August 20--Hillwood Museum and Gardens (4155 Linnean Ave., NW; 202-686-5807; hillwoodmuseum.org) welcomes the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community for tours and events celebrating the life and collections of Marjorie Merriweather Post. $15; children, $5. Reservations required.