Best of Penn Quarter: Halls of Wonder

Penn Quarter has some of the city’s best museums. Here are new exhibits, hidden gems, and more.

By: Eliot Stein

>> See the full best of Penn Quarter guide here.
 

National Portrait Gallery

This museum features portraits of poets and Presidents, visionaries and villains who have shaped America.

Best for: People-watching under the undulating glass canopy in the Kogod Courtyard, between the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The space has free wireless Internet, and visitors can bring in food or grab a snack at the Courtyard Café (open daily 11:30 to 6:30).

What’s new: “Faces of the Frontier” (through January 24) tells the story of the American West from 1845 to 1924 through photographs and paintings. “Echoes of Elvis” (January 8 through August 22) will showcase ten portraits of the King to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday.

Hidden gem: Many visitors never make it to the third floor’s Great Hall, thought to be the largest room in America when it was built. The magnificent space is home to “Twentieth Century Americans,” a permanent exhibit showcasing important cultural, scientific, and political figures.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Under the same roof as the National Portrait Gallery, this museum houses more than three centuries of art—from Colonial to contemporary—in one of the world’s largest American-art collections.

Best for: Artistic oddballs. Beyond the Georgia O’Keeffes and Winslow Homers, the museum boasts an impressive number of offbeat creations. In the third-floor Lincoln Gallery, look for “Woman Eating,” a lifelike fiberglass sculpture of an overweight lady gorging herself, and “Electronic Superhighway,” 49 televisions that form a neon map of America.

What’s new: “What’s It All Mean” (through January 24), an exhibit spanning painter/sculptor William T. Wiley’s career.

Hidden gem: It took James Hampton 14 years of work in a garage in DC’s Shaw neighborhood (and a lot of aluminum foil)to create “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” a 180-component sculpture meant as an offering for Christ’s return to Earth.

International Spy Museum

This has the world’s largest collection of spy gadgets, from weapons to bugs.

Best for: Prowling Penn Quarter on a GPS-guided mission. In a new program called Spy in the City, the museum organizes a scavenger hunt that sends participants on undercover assignment with clues, codes, and audio intercepts.

What’s new: “Weapons of Mass Disruption,” a permanent cyber-warfare exhibit.

Hidden gem: In School for Spys videos, intelligence pros teach you how to pick a lock or change your appearance in seconds.

Newseum

The Newseum’s seven floors blend five centuries of reporting history with up-to-the-minute interactive news updates.

Best for: News junkies. The sixth floor displays the front pages of more than 80 international papers every day and has a kiosk where visitors can access 800 others.

What’s new: “Athlete: The Sports Illustrated Photography of Walter Iooss” (open indefinitely) showcases the sports photographer’s work, with images of more than 40 athletes from Muhammad Ali to Michael Phelps. “First Dogs” (open indefinitely) displays photos of dogs belonging to 23 Presidents.

National Archives

America’s most important storage space houses the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Best for: Discovering your family history. With millions of pages of government records, the Archives is the best place in the country to trace your background.

What’s new: To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the Archives offers an Expert Series, in which museum curators and scholars lecture about topics in US history.