Built as the first building in America designed specifically to be an art museum, The Renwick Gallery in Washington is home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative art. But with it’s “Wonder” artworks exhibit, the entire family will be in awe of installations designed to take over the different galleries within. Exhibits made from materials including thread, tires, marbles, cardboard and insects will have you seeing art in a new, modern light.

Smithsonian, Renwick Gallery, Free in D.C.

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

Smithsonian Art of “Wonder”

When you mention the name Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. you may think immediately of the Smithsonian Institution or The Air and Space Museum. However, you may not have heard of The Renwick Gallery. Situated down the block from the White House is the newly renovated museum, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative art. It’s currently home to an exhibit called, “Wonder” which “celebrates the…renewed dedication to the future of art.” But it really is aptly named.

Smithsonian, Renwick Gallery, Free in D.C.

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

Larger-Than-Life Artworks

Nine artists have created large-scale installations from materials that many of us may throw in the trash, or work to keep out of our home. Pieces of cardboard are piled high into mountains, marbles flow upwards to the ceiling, thread becomes a rainbow of light, and insects scale walls and doors. You can’t take your eyes off them. These are just a few of the examples of the massive assemblies that have been created and that will intrigue your entire family.


First, Some History

Smithsonian, Renwick Gallery, Free in D.C.

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

The Renwick Gallery is actually the first building in America that was created specifically to house art.

It was built in 1859 to house the private art collection of William Wilson Corcoran. He, along with architect James Renwick, had been to Paris and were inspired by the Louvre. Today, The Renwick Gallery is known as “The American Louvre.”

Corcoran at the time felt that although America was pushing ahead in industry and technology, it was falling behind in the arts. He couldn’t bear to have that happen.

By the 1960s, the museum was set to be demolished to make way for a new glass and steel government building. First Lady Jackie Kennedy along with some others pushed to save the building. It was restored and reopened by 1972 to house one of the Smithsonian collections.

The exterior of the building does indeed feel like a Louvre pavilion, except for the neon signs atop the entrance that say it’s “Dedicated to Art” (and the future of art). And in the tradition of European museums and other Smithsonian museums, it’s free to enter and explore. (Although donation boxes allow you to give should you choose to do so.)

Artist Patrick Dougherty, featured at the Renwick Gallery, has woven sticks into amazing architecture. "The branches tell him which way they want to bend."

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

The Wonder Artworks

The museum displays temporary exhibits by renowned artists. On display through May 8, 2016 are works by Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, John Grade and Maya Lin (who designed the Vietnam Memorial). Also showing are artist Gabriel Dawe, Patrick Dougherty and Tara Donovan, whose displays are up until July 10, 2016, and Janet Echelman who has an installation in the Grand Salon on view through year’s end.

As you enter the building, you’ll see the mountains created by Tara Donovan, who is known for using materials such as toothpicks, straws, scotch tape and styrofoam cups. Here, she’s used index cards, metal, wood, paint and glue to create small mountains that form a landscape. She transforms “the familiar into the unrecognizable.”

Gabriel Dawe has created “architecturally scaled weavings” that are easily mistaken for beams of light. Your eyes will be tricked into thinking it’s anything other than threads, and as you walk through, you’ll be tempted to touch–although that’s not permitted! Get out the camera and be ready to post on Instagram; it’s virtually impossible to take a bad shot of this beauty of an installation.

Onward you’ll have the chance to walk through what appears to be giant nests of sorts, as artist Patrick Dougherty has woven sticks into amazing architecture. According to materials on site, “The branches tell him which way they want to bend.” And finding the right sticks to work with is listed as one of his constant challenges. But the challenge pays off with his pieces. (You’ll want to take as many pictures of this as the cherry blossoms outside!)

Maya Lin's art installation at the Renwick Gallery uses marbles to cover floors, walls and trail up to the ceiling, shaping rivers, fields and mountains.

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

Upstairs, Maya Lin has taken up natural wonders with marbles. As a child, she watched her father use them in the studio glass movement. Her marbles cover floors, walls and trail up to the ceiling, shaping rivers, fields and mountains in her eyes. You, too, will see the landscapes.

Chakaia Booker has re-used tires as a material to build a screen of sorts that children seemed to want to walk through and touch. (And although you’re not supposed to touch the artwork, I did see plenty who didn’t hesitate on this one.)

The exhibit that really had children and adults intrigued alike was Jennifer Angus’ work “In the Midnight Garden.” Composed of real insects (yes, they are real and she’s not altered them other than to reposition their wings or legs), the room takes on a Day of the Dead meets New Orleans parade feel as skeletons and patterns appear on the walls created from multiple species of insects.

From afar (or even just a little bit away) you have no idea that they are actually insects. And, in case you wondered, the insects are not endangered–rather they are abundant in Malaysia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea. A pink wash across the walls is created from the cochineal insect in Mexico.

The bugs are just one of the incredible photo-worthy exhibits at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.

Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

And when you hit the Grand Salon, Janet Echelman’s design invites you to lay down on the floor (giant pillows are provided as well as a cushy rug) and look up at a woven sculpture that takes over the ceiling and appears to be shifting or moving a bit through light and wind programmed above it.

The sculpture is supposed to correspond to a map of energy released across the Pacific Ocean during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It was a devastating event, and is supposed to remind us that things that are wondrous can also be dangerous, however, it’s so beautiful to look at, I sensed no fear among gazers.

In each gallery, you’ll find a notable quote on the character of “wonder.” As you walk through, look for green labels. And if you take pictures and post them using the #RenwickGallery hashtag, the museum may feature your posts in the gallery itself as well as on the website.

Have you visited the Renwick Gallery? Tell us what you thought of it in the comment section below.