DC Mythbusting: Museums

Photo courtesy of
‘Postal Museum — Washington, DC’
courtesy of ‘K’s Clicks’

One of the greatest things about living in DC is the proximity of so many great museums.  Always wanted to be a spy? Fascinated by textiles?  Love American military medicine?  DC is your place.  And while you might not be fighting the crowds at every museum (I don’t see huge lines at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, for example), some museums are huge tourist attractions.  Ever wondered what the most popular museums in the city are? And how many objects, art, and specimens the Smithsonian Institution has? Or when the best time to visit a museum is?

Photo courtesy of
‘Sackler #222’
courtesy of ‘andertho’

The Smithsonian Institution‘s 17 museums in the DC area (and two others in New York City) attract an average of 30 million visits a year. Admission at all museums is free.  And the Smithsonian Institution has 137 million objects in its collection, but 126 million of those are specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History.

The museums along the Mall are some of the largest tourist attractions in the city.  It’s pretty easy to guess that the Air & Space museum is the busiest Smithsonian museum, since every single time I’ve ever visited I’ve been overwhelmed with the crowds.  Over 8 million visits were recorded at the Air & Space Museum on the Mall last year, which is crazy when you realize that only 16.4 million people visit DC in any given year.  So it’s safe to say that the Air & Space Museum is on the agenda for most of the visitors to the Nation’s Capital.

Here’s the full list of 2010 visits for the Smithsonian Institution in the Washington area:

  1. National Air & Space Museum – 8.3 million
  2. National Museum of Natural History – 6.2 million
  3. National Museum of American History – 4.2 million
  4. National Zoo – 2.3 million
  5. Smithsonian Castle – 1.8 million
  6. National Museum of the American Indian – 1.3 million
  7. National Portrait Gallery & Smithsonian American Art Museum – 1.1 million
  8. Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center (out by Dulles Airport) – 1.1 million
  9. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – 621,000
  10. Freer Gallery of Art – 488,000
  11. Ripley Center – 363,000
  12. National Postal Museum – 343,000
  13. National Museum of African Art – 310,000
  14. Sackler Gallery – 308,000
  15. Renwick Gallery – 151,000
  16. Anacostia Community Museum – 58,000

Photo courtesy of
‘Clouds over NMNH HDR’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

But even though the Smithsonian Museums dominate the museum landscape in DC, there are several other notable private museums in the city.  We don’t have exact visitor figures for many of them because they’re private institutions, but they’re just as busy as many of the Smithsonian Museums.  The Holocaust Museum has attracted more then 30 million visitors since it opened in 1993, which averages out to over two million visitors per year.  The International Spy Museum attracts about 750,000 visitors in an average year.  The Newseum attracted 714,000 visitors in its first year here in DC, and that’s not counting the hundreds of private events hosted there in a given year. And the National Building Museum gets over 400,000 visitors in a year.

Even with all of these different museum options in the city, it seems like some of them are perpetually busy.  So when is the best time to visit museums to avoid the crowds?  Try December or January.  Those are the months with the lowest number of tourists in the city, so you’re more likely to have some room to move around.  Whatever you do, beware of long lines and cranky children in April and June, which are the busiest tourist months of the year in DC.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

11 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Museums

  1. I have a very slight correction; you don’t specifically say it – but the Holocaust Museum doesn’t charge admission – it is completely free.

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  3. @ Tara Thanks for catching that! I’ve corrected the wording so it’s a little more clear.

    @ Jen National Archives is not included because I couldn’t find any good data on the annual number of visitors to the museum. I imagine it’s a big one though.

  4. Don’t forget the Corcoran! It has great art, and the students are wonderful. It does charge admission, but I think it is worth it.

  5. Because the Newseum does charge, it’s not crowded, which is something I love about it when I visit.

    It would be interesting to see year by year leaders in attendance. Didn’t AMNH rank first once?

  6. Seconding Jay on the plug for the Newseum. I’ve been a member since it opened and I love its exhibits and programs.

    I do worry about its future though, because I’m afraid that they’re not attracting enough visitors to break even. Maybe the fees they charge for special events make up for lower attendance.

    Also, I can’t believe the National Building Museum’s attendance is so low! It’s another overlooked gem. I drag anyone who visits me in D.C. there — as much to see the space and for the building tour (every volunteer tour guide I’ve had has been terrific) as to see the exhibits.

    The Air & Space Museum on the Mall is probably my least favorite of the Smithsonians, largely because of the crowds. I prefer the Udar-Hazy Center, though they can use more explanations of the items on display and the pay-for-parking situation is annoying.

  7. Hey y, Mythbusting has evolved into a feature that looks into the facts behind aspects of DC life– I chose museums because I was surprised to see the different visitor numbers (and it confirmed my suspicion that Air & Space was the busiest).

    If you, or anyone else, has a myth about DC that you’d like to see busted, PLEASE shoot me an e-mail or leave me a comment. I’ve been writing this feature for two years, so I’ve busted just about all of the DC myths I could think of during that time! Thanks :)