If you find yourself near Gallery Place/Chinatown looking for something to do, I highly recommend stepping into the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery. I may be completely biased in this recommendation because the Portrait Gallery is probably my favorite art museum in DC. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy spending time in the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, and the Renwick, but I feel a giddiness when I walk into the Portrait Gallery. This might be because it feels a little like a history museum when I look at all the portraits of famous, and not so famous, people throughout our nation’s history. I also think they have the best special exhibits.You might be thinking that museums are not public space. I disagree. If it is a public museum where anyone can visit without paying a fee and it is publicly owned, it is a public space. Therefore, all of the Smithsonian museums are public spaces.
When I visit the museum, which is actually two museums in one (the SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery) I tend to spend all my time in the Portrait Gallery, Saturday was no exception. On the particular day I visited, I was thrilled to learn one of the current special exhibits is “In the Groove” and provides portraits of famous jazz musicians. As a lover of big band jazz, seeing the photographs had a great impact on me. In addition to perusing the portraits alone, I decided to take one of the docent-led tours, which was very informative. For example, I had no idea that Walt Whitman tended wounded soldiers in the building during the Civil War when it was converted to a military hospital, or that it was the third public building to be built in DC as the U.S. Patent Office (the first and second being the Capitol and the White House).
The National Portrait Gallery and SAAM utilize their biggest public space, the courtyard, throughout the year for events. When I wandered in on Saturday, they were hosting a huge Chinese New Year celebration with crafts, photos, and performers. When the courtyard is not being overtaken by a large event, it is a very calming space with trees, a cool water feature, tables, and a cafe where you can relax, read a book, or chat with friends. I evened studied for the GRE last summer in this space. It’s like an indoor breath of fresh air that was clearly designed to be a space that can be converted for different uses.
While not all of the museum offers the ability to do multiple activities, the courtyard provides the malleable opportunities that streets and parks possess as well. Since it is enclosed, it can be enjoyed year round. I love that there is a quiet place within one of the busiest areas of the District where you can escape, look at art, and relax.