Washington is a city of famous museums the Smithsonian, the National Archives, even the White House. But could those attractions be too famous? Visitors who are drawn to them almost automatically may not realize that the U.S. capital boasts a second tier of smaller, more specialized museums that are equally fascinating and often possess distinct advantages over their bigger, better-known brethren. For starters, they are less crowded, and are often inexpensive or free. In these institutions, adventurous tourists can find colorful, offbeat exhibits highlighting world-class collections, in some cases the only ones of their kind.
Los Angeles resident Mimi Donaldson, 57, regards herself as something of an aficionado of museums. But when, on a recent business trip, she toured Washington's International Spy Museum, tel: (1-202) 393-7798; www.spymuseum.org, she [an error occurred while processing this directive] found an almost unique experience: the five-year-old facility is one of only two in the world dedicated entirely to espionage, and features artifacts, interactive displays, films, video and historic photos (the other is in Tampere, Finland). Exhibits show how to create and hide coded messages, tell the story of celebrity spies such as master chef Julia Child and Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich, and offer a glimpse of espionage in biblical times.
Donaldson saw items ranging from a 1777 letter by George Washington authorizing a network of spies in New York City to a latter-day camera so tiny that it is concealed in a button. "I grew up in the cold war, where we sat under our desks in school during drills and hoped that we wouldn't be bombed," she says. "The Spy Museum brought that time in my life back to me in full, living color." Visitors can live out their Mission: Impossible fantasies by selecting an undercover persona complete with false name, age and other traits upon entering the museum. Before they exit, an interactive display tests them on how well they remember the details of their new identity.
Want to feel the inside of a stomach? View a smoker's lung? The National Museum of Health and Medicine, tel: (1-202) 782 2200; www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum, enables tourists to see and feel the effects of disease on the human body, and documents the shifting course of the history of medicine, says Jeffrey Reznick, senior curator. Founded in 1862, the institution is at its ninth location, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The setting is appropriate, since the museum traces changes in the practice of medicine during various wars. Its collection of artifacts includes the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere's dental equipment (bet you didn't know that in addition to being a silversmith, Revere was a dentist).
For those who love literature, the 73-year-old Folger Shakespeare Library, tel: (1-202) 544 4600; www.folger.edu, has the world's largest collection of the Bard's memorabilia and printed works even beating collections in his native England, says director Gail Kern Paster. The first folio from 1623 is one of the Folger's most prized Shakespeare rarities. There are also non-Shakespeare engravings, artifacts and writings from 1500 to 1800. Special exhibits have included letter writing which featured correspondence among sweethearts and an unopened letter written by King George I from the same time frame. The library houses a 240-seat theater that features professional performances of Shakespeare's works (Jan. 19-Feb. 26, Measure for Measure), as well as other shows, concerts and readings throughout the year.
Also celebrating the arts but from a female perspective is the district's National Museum of Women in the Arts, tel: (1-202) 783 5000; www.nmwa.org. The 24-year-old establishment shows work by more than 800 women artists, from Renaissance paintings to contemporary sculpture. Unlike most facilities that showcase women's art, this one doesn't dwell on a single period or collections from one artist, notes director Judy Larson. Nor does it focus solely on painting and sculpture. Special exhibits have also concentrated on women in film, literature and music. An exhibit of ancient Mexican and Peruvian art featuring women runs Mar. 3-May 28, to be followed by aboriginal painters from Australia, June 30-Sept. 24.
Tourists willing to venture a few miles out of the district to Fairfax, Virginia, will be rewarded by another of the area's unusual institutions: the 68-year-old National Firearms Museum, tel: (1-703) 267 1600; www.nra.nationalfirearms.museum. Run by the National Rifle Association, it has one of the country's largest collections of rare and historical guns. More than 2,000 are on display, including those that belonged to Napoleon (an 1800 double flintlock fowler shotgun), cowgirl Annie Oakley and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, says senior curator Doug Wicklund.
On view through the end of 2006 is a special exhibit called the "Arsenal of Democracy," which honors World War II veterans with a display of firearms used in battle. "Like so many other museums in the Washington area," Wicklund sums up, "we're a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered."