These Underrated and Smaller DC Museums Pack a Big Punch
From converted private homes to tucked away locales, wander the halls of these hidden gems.
Washington DC is a city known for its museums. After all, the capital is home to a staggering number of seventeen Smithsonian Institutions filled with an eye-watering amount of art, history, and culture all for free. We’re pretty lucky to live here, are we not?
The local museum offerings are also one of DC’s main selling points, besides cherry trees and it being the seat of American political power, that is. But what many people—both visitors and longtime Washingtonians—might overlook, is that in addition to the cathedrals of art lining the National Mall, the city is teeming with smaller, more tucked away museums in quiet neighborhoods and on university campuses.
From 19th century paintings to contemporary sculptures and artifacts spanning thousands of years of world history, here are ten of the DC’s smaller must-visit museums to explore.
DC Museums in Converted Private Homes
Georgetown, Free ($7 garden admission starting March 15)
Dumbarton Oaks is an oasis in the city. The 53-acre property and Harvard University-operated research institute, museum, and library is located at the highest point in Georgetown and boasts grounds and views worthy of a day’s wander. Inside, the home turned museum boasts a rich collection of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art and artifacts, which were collected by Robert and Mildred Bliss, diplomats and philanthropists who bequeathed their estate to Harvard in the 1940s. Today, this spot is one of the city’s cornerstone small museums. Perhaps more famous than its collection of art, is its music room which in 1937, was the site of a world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. While tempting to stay inside, make time for the historic gardens which are meticulously cultivated to feature flowering trees and plants throughout the year. Stroll the grounds in winter when you’ll likely have them to yourselves.
Dupont Circle, $20 and pay-what-you-wish from 4 pm to closing
When the Phillips Collection first opened back in 1917, it was the first museum in the United States devoted solely to modern art. And it wasn’t just a museum—at its founding, it was part of the private home of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips who opened a portion of their Dupont Circle mansion to paying art enthusiasts eager to take a look at their collection. The Phillips were extremely influential collectors at that, and the pieces they amassed in the 1920s are considered some of the most significant works of European painting. Today, the museum continues to be a must-visit and the intimate space is home to a much-loved Rothko room, a small room constructed entirely of beeswax, as well as landmark works from heavy hitters like Degas, Van Gogh and Cézanne. It’s also home to a renowned concert series that sells out almost instantaneously. True to the Impressionist core of its collection, the Phillips will welcome an exhibit of the works of Pierre Bonnard, “Bonnard’s World,” opening March 4.
Berkeley, $15 and advance registration is suggested
Head to a well-heeled section of the city for one of DC’s museum gems. Located in a mid-century masterpiece of a house, the Kreeger is a petite museum that packs a punch. Constructed in 1963 by renowned architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster, the structure was created as a private home for David and Carmen Kreeger, fixtures in the local political and social scene and consummate art collectors. The Kreegers curated a collection of 19th and 20th century paintings of stalwarts like Pablo Picasso. Wandering through this institution has the feeling of walking through someone’s private home (albeit a masterpiece of a mansion) with priceless art at your fingertips. European paintings are displayed alongside West African masks and the grounds of the home—all five acres—serve as an eclectic sculpture garden. The exhibit, “Still Something Singing,” which gathers contemporary works from the Washington Sculpture Group, is on display through the end of January.
The National Mall, Free but donations are encouraged
Just off the National Mall, in a building that looks like it could grace the streets of Cartagena or Mexico City, is the Art Museum of the Americas. This small museum is devoted to showcasing contemporary works from Latin American and Caribbean artists and is run by the Organization of American States. The museum itself was once the private home of the president of the OAS and today, houses nearly 2,000 pieces, many of which were instrumental in catapulting the career of Latin American and Caribbean artists in the US. The museum will close for a few weeks this winter for renovations but if you stop in before January 21, you can see the impressive exhibition of works by Maria Luisa Pacheco, an important mid-century artist whose career flourished from La Paz to Madrid to New York.
Underrated Hidden Gem DC Museums
Southwest Waterfront, $15 and free for DC residents and veterans
As one of the city’s newest museums, the Rubell showcases bold, modern, and contemporary works from the private collection of Don and Mera Rubell, a couple who began collecting art in the 1960s. Since then, their collection has grown to over 7,000 pieces by more than 1,000 artists. It also traces how artists have responded to their respective political and social movements from the AIDS crisis, climate activism, and Black Lives Matter. Previously a school, the museum has been extensively renovated into 32,000 square feet of light-filled galleries for shows like “Singular View: 2 Artists,” which highlights 25 contemporary artists including hometown names like John Waters, Patricia Ayres, February James, and Simphiwe Ndzube.
Downtown, $16 and $13 for DC residents
After a multi-year renovation, the National Museum of Women in the Arts reopened last fall with a top-to-bottom refresh of its 1908 Classical Revival buildings. Highlights include a new curatorial vision, expanded gallery space, and a reaffirmed commitment to asserting and advocating for the role of women and nonbinary artists. When it originally opened in 1987, the museum was the first in the world solely dedicated to sharing the work of women in the arts. And to this day, it continues to hold gender and equity in the arts as essential to its work with a collection of over 6,000 pieces spanning from 17th century art to contemporary works. For its reopening, the museum is showcasing four exhibitions including “Remix,” the core permanent collection set to rotate periodically with a strong consideration for overlooked artists throughout history.
Downtown, Free but advanced reservations are required
Possibly the most fun museum in DC, you don’t have to be a kid to experience some of the child-like joy Planet Words inspires. Similar to others, Planet Word is also located in another former public-school building, this one a quite grand brick building in the middle of downtown DC. Today the building—which was constructed in 1869 as the Franklin School—has a similar education mission to its original intent. Planet Word’s three floors are dedicated to the wonder of language and how we communicate. Highly interactive, the space makes use of clever technology and artistry to teach how language has evolved, the different language distinguishers work around the world, and the power of language in storytelling and in our shared humanity. A fun language-themed gift shop, as well as an on-site Immigrant Food, are both must-stops after checking out the exhibits.
Foggy Bottom, $8 suggest donation
Tucked away on the campus of GW, this pair of museums might make you want to be a student again. The Textile Museum has what is considered to be one of the world’s best collections of textiles, tapestries, and rugs, and includes examples that span a time period of over 5,000 years. In total, the museum has over 21,000 objects with highlights including Native American weavings from 900 BCE, 19th century Japanese kimonos, and 15h century Egyptian carpets. Stop in late February for the unveiling of its new exhibition, “Irresistible: The Global Patterns of Ikat” (opening February 24). In the same complex, you’ll find the GWU Museum with a collection of artifacts tracing Washington DC’s history from colonial days to the present.
Penn Quarter, $12 or free with timed admission
As one of DC’s newest museums, the Capital Jewish Museum opened its doors in the summer of 2023, nearly 150 years after the historical event on June 9, 1876, when Ulysses S. Grant became the first president to attend synagogue services. The museum explores the Jewish experience throughout DC’s history and tells the story of Jewish people who were influential in shaping the capital, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a Confederate spy, and many people in between through interactive storytelling and over 24,000 photographs and 1,000 objects.
Penn Quarter, Free
In the hustle and bustle of DC’s Penn Quarter is a small storefront with a big history. Right on 7th Street, between José Andrés restaurants, are the rooms where Clara Barton—the founder of the American Red Cross—lived and worked. It was here that Barton set up shop after the Civil War, taking on the immense task of providing services to track down missing Union soldiers. President Lincoln himself gave Barton his blessing to set up the office and it was here, on the third floor of a boarding house, that Barton worked tirelessly with a team of clerks to compile lists of missing soldiers that were published daily in newspapers around the country. In 1996, the building was slated for demolition but saved last-minute after the dramatic discovery of over a thousand important letters and documents in the attic. Today it’s one of three buildings that make up the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (the other two are in Maryland).