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The SmithsonianCongress puzzled for more than a decade over what to do with James Smithson's strange and unprecedented bequest; a wealthy British scientist, Smithson willed his entire fortune of a half-million dollars to a country he had never visited, “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge… .” Some congressmen argued against accepting the gift at all; others proposed a university, an observatory, a school for teachers or a library. What they agreed to in 1846 was a natural history museum and attendant research center, an institutional seedling that has since grown remarkably in size and scope.

Nearly all of the buildings on the National Mall are Smithsonian museums. They include Freer/Sackler: The Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the National Air and Space Museum; the National Museum of African Art; the National Museum of American History; the National Museum of Natural History; the National Museum of the American Indian; the S. Dillon Ripley Center; and the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle), the original building, completed in 1855. Next door to the Castle, the Arts and Industries Building is open sporadically for special events.

Newest Museum

Standing on a 5-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument grounds is the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Other Smithsonian facilities in D.C. include the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Postal Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. The National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located near Washington Dulles International Airport in nearby Chantilly, Va.

The vast collection of objects in these museums chronicle nearly every facet of human endeavor from the masterful to the mundane, and give visitors a staggeringly comprehensive look at the natural world. The Smithsonian also encompasses research installations, observatories, libraries and facilities for preserving and restoring artifacts, and offers publications, lectures, classes and other educational programs.

A good first stop, especially if you're a first-time visitor, is the Smithsonian Visitor Center in the Castle (open daily 8:30-5:30; closed Christmas). While there, be sure to give thanks to James Smithson; his tomb—rescued in 1903 by Alexander Graham Bell from an endangered cemetery in Genoa, Italy—lies in a crypt off the north entrance. It is a final resting place of which Smithson would no doubt approve, just as he would the multifarious institution he helped found for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

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Washington, DC

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Travel Information

Population

601,723

Elevation

23 ft.

Sales Tax

The District of Columbia's sales tax is 6 percent. Additional increments are attached when purchasing alcohol, restaurant meals, rental cars, commercial parking and hotel rooms. The higher tax rates range from 10 to 18 percent. The sales tax in neighboring Maryland is 6 percent and Virginia taxes range from 4.3 to 7 percent.

Emergency

911

Police (non-emergency)

311 in Washington, D.C., or (202) 727-9099

Hospitals

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, (202) 444-2000; The George Washington University Hospital, (202) 715-4000; Howard University Hospital, (202) 865-6100; Sibley Memorial Hospital, (202) 537-4000; MedStar Washington Hospital Center, (202) 877-7000.

Visitor Information

1133 21st St. N.W. Suite M200 Washington, DC 20036. Phone:(202)347-7201

Air Travel

Visitors arriving by plane can land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) or Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).

Rental Cars

Rental car agencies in Washington are numerous; most have conveniently located offices in the city and nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Arrangements should be made before you leave on your trip. Your local AAA club can provide this service or additional information. Hertz offers discounts to AAA members; phone (800) 654-3080.

Rail Service

Trains pull into the

Buses

The Greyhound Lines Inc. bus terminal is at 50 Massachusetts Ave. N.E.; phone (202) 289-5141.

Taxis

Taxicabs in Washington are metered.

Public Transportation

Transportation by bus or subway is available in Washington.

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