06/26/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Standing in the Rainbow (And 9 Other Reasons the Smithsonian Makes Me Smile)

This week's been a bit hectic for me, but that made having today off for museum-going all the sweeter. My father requested something happy to read for Fathers' Day, so I came up with the idea of making a list of 10 things at the Smithsonian Institution's various museums and other facilities that make me smile.

Now, there are a LOT of things I love seeing at the Smithsonian, but I decided to make this list unique by focusing on smaller and lesser-known places, artifacts and experiences that have brightened my days. So as cool as the Wright Flyer, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Hope Diamond are, you won't find them on this list. Instead, this is a more personal list of what my old Air and Space Museum guidebook called, "Small Treasures and Other Attractions." So, without further ado, the Smithsonian makes me smile...

1) Because dragons are real -- Komodo Dragon Plush, National Zoo.

Sometime before second grade or thereabouts, my friends and I at a summer day camp were passing the time debating what animal was the biggest, scariest land predator. ("And don't say people, because they don't count.")

Now, despite my love of lions and tigers, I suggested a very different animal, one that had seemed incredibly fearsome in the National Geographic article my mother had read to me about it.

"Komodo dragons!" I offered, joining in the argument.

"Dragons aren't real, Zoe." My friends rebuked me.

"No, no, Komodo dragons! They're these huge lizards that live on this island by Australia and they have poison spit!" I clarified.

"I've never heard of those."

"Those don't exist!"

Being as young as I was and eating my lunch on the edge of a soccer field, I was unable to produce any evidence that Komodo dragons did, in fact, exist, so I dropped the argument and joined the chorus supporting tigers.

I still think that Komodo dragons are very interesting (from a safe distance!), and was excited on my first visit to the National Zoo last year to see that they had a Komodo on display. I'd seen the taxidermied Komodos at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) back in New York dozens of times, but I'd never seen a live one this close-up before, stalking around confidently like a living dinosaur.

Last weekend, while spending a sunny Sunday at the Zoo, I wandered into the gift shop within the zoo's Welcome Center and began absent-mindedly perusing the various species of stuffed animals that were for sale. Since the Zoo's giant pandas are its most famous attraction, toy pandas of various sizes and colors were very well-represented. But one bin held a variety of stuffed toy that I'd never seen before...

"Ohmigosh, a stuffed Komodo dragon!"

There they were, a bin full of small Komodos, rendered in soft brown cloth, about a meter from the tip of their snouts to the end of their tails. A realistic-looking Komodo dragon could never be cute, but these stuffed toys at least appeared trustworthy -- the sort of toy a younger me might have placed in front of my other stuffed animals at bedtime to guard them against night monsters.

If only my younger self could have had a toy Komodo like these to bring to camp the next day and show the other kids, I thought. I would have been vindicated! Alas, due to their size, the toy Komodos failed the all-important, "Will it fit in my suitcase?" test that I must ask myself every time I'm living away from home and want to buy a souvenir. Perhaps some other time...

2) Because I live down the street from a dinosaur -- "Uncle Beazley" Statue, National Zoo.

Speaking of my younger self, like most healthy, normal, science-minded children, I went through several years of intense dinosaur obsession. (I still think they're very cool, and like visiting them at natural history museums when I have the chance, but the next person who asks me if being an archeology major means I'm learning how to dig up dinosaurs is getting left to the mummies...)

I'm very lucky to live close enough to the Zoo to be able to walk there and explore on the weekends, especially because I'm always making fun discoveries. And a few weeks ago, I came across something very special -- a life-sized statue of a Triceratops! "Uncle Beazley" is named for the dinosaur from Oliver Butterworth's 1956 children's book The Enormous Egg, in which a living Triceratops is brought to the Smithsonian and comes to live at the Zoo.

Like the Easter Island head integrated into the Hall of Pacific Peoples at AMNH after Night at the Museum, it's a clever nod to the work of fiction that might have been some visitors' first introduction to the real place they're now touring. As an even cuter display, Uncle Beazley is surrounded by ferns, papyrus, and other suitably prehistoric-looking plants, and a large sign in front of the sculpture reads, "KEEP OFF OF THE DINOSAUR." (In a similar gag, elsewhere at the Zoo, there's a sign reading, "Please don't feed or pet the elephants!" next to a basketry sculpture of an elephant mother and child.)

The National Zoo's work protecting endangered species is very serious, but it makes me smile to see that the Zoo employees still have a sense of humor.

3) Because you can find peace and quiet in the middle of the city -- Moongate Garden, Sackler Gallery of Art.

In a strictly technical sense, it's true that, compared to the other museums surrounding it, the Smithsonian "Castle" doesn't have much in it -- while it was the first of the Smithsonian museums to be built, it's now the organization's Information Center rather than an active museum. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth visiting -- the architecture alone is fantastic and incredibly photogenic. The building really does look like a castle from a fairy tale!

The gardens behind the Castle are also worth visiting -- they're divided into several parts, each inspired by the building nearest to it. Behind the Castle itself is the Parterre, a very Victorian display of flowers carefully arranged in geometric patterns across a large enclosed lawn. Like the Castle, it's orderly, welcoming, and magnificent.

To the east, next to the entrance to the National Museum of African Art, there's the Fountain Garden, inspired by the gardens of Spain's Moorish Alhambra palace. Sadly, the fountain's been shut off at the moment because of the construction at the next-door Arts and Industries Building, so I haven't been able to experience this garden's full effect.

My personal favorite of these three is located on the other side of the Castle, next to the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art. As I mentioned last year, this Moongate Garden is based on traditional Chinese architectural and gardening symbolism, especially that used at Beijing's Temple of Heaven. The garden features various combinations of circles and squares -- elements that together represent the harmony of Heaven and Earth.

And harmonious it is. The trees and stone "Moongate" entrances help block out the outside world, both visually and acoustically, making this garden seem more private than the others. The large pool of water in the center makes the garden cool on the hot summer days D.C.'s been experiencing recently, especially if you take one of the four bridges to the little island in the center.

That stone island is a lovely place to sit and eat lunch, watching the weeping willows reflected in the water and the clouds pass by over the Castle turrets. It becomes hard to believe that such a peaceful spot is at the center of a major city!

4) Because art can transport you anywhere -- Tromp l'oeil Mural, S. Dillon Ripley Center.

The Ripley Center may be the most well-hidden part of the Smithsonian -- accessed through a very small pavilion in front of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, it's actually beneath those Castle gardens! But on a hot day, these underground, air-conditioned galleries are a perfect destination.

It can be easy for underground areas to feel cramped, dim, and uncomfortable -- just look at most unfinished basements. But the Ripley Center hardly feels "underground" at all -- thanks to a combination of high ceilings, brightly-painted walls, fountains, plantings, and a display of colorful kites, it feels downright airy.

However, the best trick for making such an enclosed area feel open may just be a very old one -- a tromp l'oeil mural that fills a whole wall. (True to the name of the style, it really does trick the eye.) The detailed mural shows a view into an ancient ruin whose roof has partly crumbled away, revealing the sky. Both classical and ancient Egyptian sculptures are visible within the ruined building. Down a long pathway through the ruins, a building that looks something like Arts and Industries is visible in the distance. But this fantasy is mixed with some reality --at the top of the mural, the Castle is visible through the holes in the roof, several stories above us, as it presumably really would look if the intervening floors and ground weren't in the way.

The mural serves a practical purpose by helping the space feel less claustrophobic, but it's also very beautiful. Even though I know I'm underground and there aren't any Greco-Roman ruins underneath D.C., the level of detail makes the scene appear real to me. And that's the power of art, I suppose.

5) Because make-believe sometimes becomes reality -- Flash Gordon Ray Guns, National Air and Space Museum Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how incredible it was to see the Space Shuttle Discovery right there in front of me at the Udvar-Hazy Center. As a docent at the museum told me, if the Mall museum is the Air and Space Museum's Disneyland, the Udvar-Hazy Center is their Walt Disney World -- a second location incorporating lessons learned from the first, where there's more space to expand.

And, as incredible as the scores of original air- and spacecraft on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center are, there are also many interesting smaller items, including several displays of toys, trophies, and souvenirs. (I don't think I really had an idea of just HOW popular Charles Lindbergh was until I saw their display of different types of Lindberg memorabilia that filled several large display cases.)

A display near the front of the Space Hangar showcases various types of space toys through the decades, including the original Star Wars action figures. (I'd never seen astronaut Barbies before -- when I'd wanted to play outer space with my Barbies as a little girl, I'd had to use the scuba diving outfits from that set.)

On their own, all of the toys are fun to look at, but it's the original Flash Gordon toys from the 1930s that really strike a chord with me. Some of the kids who wore those masks, sent away for those pins, and ran around their backyards with those painted tin "atomic ray guns" would become the engineers and astronauts who brought space travel from science fiction to science fact 20 and 30 years later.

In the museum, you can replicate that development with a simple turn of your head -- from the tin toy rocketships to the real one that fills the room.

6) Because you never know what you'll find when you go exploring -- Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.

A definite benefit of multi-week internships is having the free time to wander around the Mall and not only be able to take the time to soak in each museum's collection over many visits, but also to spend plenty of time poking around their gardens. I mentioned before that the construction on the Arts and Industries Building has closed some space off on the Castle side, and last year, I thought the same thing was true of the Hirshhorn side.

I'd seen that there was a nice-looking garden in the "alley" between the two museums, including a lovely cast-iron fountain with two spouts shaped like cranes, but the sight of the construction barriers right next door caused me to think that the garden was closed off beyond this immediate entrance. I cursed my bad luck for having visited when the construction was going on, and moved on.

This year, while walking along the Mall, I decided to see just how far into the garden visitors were allowed to go. I rounded the circular planters, continuing on along the red-brick path... and found that I was free to go all the way to the other side of the street! There were no barriers set up within the garden!

The path wound calmly through the available space, instead of being a straight line. I had the space all to myself, enjoying the shade and the views of the Hirshhorn's cylindrical body over the garden wall. A few lovely cobalt blue gazing balls accented the foliage, their color magnificent.

I smiled, happy that my explorations had paid off. Like any good explorer, I made sure to take lots of photographs.

7) Because it's fun to defy convention -- Courtyard Fountain, Hirshhorn Gallery.

The Smithsonian's gardens contain many fountains, and, as is to be expected, most are quiet and relatively sedate -- water squirting from a spout at the top, falling into a few basins on the way down, and coming to rest in a large pool.

And then there's the Hirshhorn fountain.

The first time I'd walked underneath the huge cylinder of that architecturally-unique museum, the fountain had been turned off. I'd heard that there was one there, but I figured it must be out of order, another little treasure of D.C. that I'd been there at the wrong time to see.

But a week later, I came back, it was on, and I realized one thing -- the Hirshhorn fountain is LOUD! The jets shoot up several feet, bubbling white, and come down with a sound like the crashing of ocean waves, making a splash in the center of the huge pool that contains them.

The jets almost seem to be another sculpture -- a set of white columns in the center of the courtyard, constantly changing in height and texture, but always leaping up into the empty space at the center of the museum's hollow cylinder.

Like the other fountains, the Hirshhorn fountain reflects nature, but it's a wilder, more energetic part of nature -- perfect for a modern building in neoclassical surroundings.

8) Because true stories can be the best stories of all -- Air Babies Book, National Air and Space Museum.

I'm a big fan of the renovation that the Pioneers of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum has received -- it really captures the fun and daring spirit of 1920s aviation, and the Robert Goddard display is, to use a '20s expression, just the cat's pajamas.

But every time I visit, the one thing I have to see is a reproduction of a 1936 children's book called Air Babies, which features a forward by Amelia Earhart. The book was designed to introduce young children to aviation, and, in addition to having really cute illustrations and a charming story, it also manages to cram in a LOT of accurate information.

The "Air Babies" in question are a brother-and-sister pair of personified airplanes named Speedy and Happy Wings. Through their adventures in learning to fly, they meet a kite, a glider, a zeppelin, a balloon, and an autogyro -- a precursor of the helicopter, and discover the concepts of engine stalls, landings, and in-flight refueling (which, in their case, involves baby bottles.)

It sounds weird to get excited over a book designed for little kids, but it makes me smile to imagine parents reading it to kids who probably didn't realize how much they were learning about the real world of flying from a "fairy tale" of aviation.

9) Because traditions endure -- Herrington Feather, Flute, and Seedpot, National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).

"Whenever I'm giving little kids a tour, I ask them if they want to see the objects that flew in space. They always say, 'But aren't we in the wrong museum for that?'" One tour guide told me.

It's true -- space-flown artifacts aren't exactly what one expects to find at the National Museum of the American Indian. Although I knew that Navy Commander John Herrington had been the first self-identified Native American to fly in space in 2002, I wasn't expecting to find anything related to him at the museum -- I assumed they'd leave that to the Air and Space Museum across the street.

(I'd previously seen the Smithsonian museums avoiding trespassing on each others' subject matter in the transportation gallery of the National Museum of American History, which almost completely omitted any mention of air travel to avoid duplicating information easily found at Air and Space.)

But, there it was, a display case on the museum's fourth floor containing an eagle feather, small clay pot, and flute, with photographs of those objects floating in space, in front of the space shuttle's window. As the display explained, Commander Herrington had taken these objects, as well as a Chickasaw Nation flag, on his flight as a way of honoring his heritage.

The tour guide I talked to said that she'd met Commander Herrington at one of the museum's powwow celebrations, and that he was now working as an ambassador for his tribe. "I don't think they could have chosen a better one," she said.

And, even though I've never met him, I agree. Because if any one object epitomizes for me the NMAI's mission of showing Native Americans as a people who maintain their past traditions while still being vibrant and modern, it's that space-flown feather.

10) Because every sunbeam is a rainbow -- Prism Window, National Museum of the American Indian.

When I first visited NMAI in eighth grade, we happened to visit at exactly the right time of day to take advantage of a very special feature of the building's architecture -- a window embedded with eight prisms that throw rainbows onto the floor of the museum's central atrium. My friends and I all had great fun standing in the rainbows and looking at the spectrum across our arms and legs.

When my brothers visited for their eighth grade trip, I wrote them this piece of advice when visiting NMAI -- "Yes, you can stand in the rainbow. Yes, it's fun. Do it." They were grateful for this advice and thanked me for it upon returning home.

However, on my visits last year and this summer, I always seemed to be visiting at the wrong time. I asked a docent when the best time to see the rainbows would be, and she told me to come at 1 p.m..

Following her advice, I came in a little before that the next day. While I couldn't see the floor of the atrium from where I came in because of the sculpture-screen around it, as I walked down the ramp, I caught a glimpse of a loose rainbow-end in front of me and stuck my hand into it. Just like I remembered, I was rewarded with the sight of my skin suddenly turning shades of green and blue.

On the atrium floor itself, I could get the full effect, standing in a full spectrum and feeling magical. (I wondered if it would be possible to dye denim to make the funky red-orange-yellow-green gradient on my jeans permanent.)

So simple, just a few pieces of glass and the rays of the sun, but what magic they produced! The prism window may only work at a specific time and in a specific place, but the physics behind it works on a sunny day anywhere -- all it takes is the right equipment to reveal the rainbow hidden in every sunbeam.