11 Things Not to Miss at the Reopened (and Still Unparalleled) Hirshhorn

Inside Hook

After a start-and-stop schedule of reopening and closing its various museums over the past year, The Smithsonian Institute finally reopens the Hirshhorn today, three months after eight of its other venues welcomed the public once more. 

Whether you’re already a “Hirshhorn Insider” or you’ve never been, now’s your chance. Here, we’ve made it easy, with a curated list of what to see, where to wander, and of course, what to eat during and after your visit (museums are tiring). 

1. Love is the Message, the Message Is Death

In the seven-minute film set to Kanye West’s gospel-inflected “Ultralight Beam,” Mississippi-born Arthur Jafa juxtaposes images of violence, joy, pain, and resilience. It’s generation-defining stuff — the apogee of required viewing.

2. Belief+Doubt

This installation from Barbara Kruger extends through the lower-level lobby and into the bookstore, surrounding visitors with text-printed vinyl in a conflicting hodgepodge of insights into social relations, power and consumerism. 

3. The Weight of History, Five Nights

Havana native Reynier Leyva Novo relied on specialized software to measure the weight, volume and area of the ink used to compose the five distinct texts at the heart of the totalitarian regimes of Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung and Muammar al Gaddafi. In a clever allusion to censorship, the ideologies are reproduced as vacant black blocks. Such a small amount of ink; such a weighty piece of history.

4. The Asthmatic Escaped II

Damien Hirst creates sculptures that highlight and even mock our impulse to isolate objects and animals on display. In this 1992 work, named for the asthmatic British painter Francis Bacon, two glass cubes filled with objects like chocolate, clothes and an inhaler — which together suggest the titular asthmatic.

Untitled (Big Man) by Ron Mueck

5. Untitled (Big Man)

Ron Mueck’s haunting, hyperreal Big Man slumps in a corner of the Hirshhorn, glowering at passers-by as they move through the space. The seven-foot behemoth evokes a fleshy, pale body painted with blemishes, blue veins and stubble; it’s a jarring and ever-popular installation that taps into the Australian sculptor’s 20-year career as a professional puppet-maker and puppeteer. 

6. At Hand

Ann Hamilton’s immersive At Hand sees sheets of translucent white paper released to gently float downwards from the ceiling, set against a backdrop of mechanical sounds. Viewers are encouraged to interact with the paper in silence, allowing the sound — or absence thereof — of the falling paper to become the keystone of the piece.

7. Wander through the Sculpture Garden

The sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn has long been a center point of the collection, reflecting a cornerstone of Joseph Hirshhorn’s initial gift. Today, the garden displays more than 30 different works, from Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Washington, DC to Dan Graham’s For Gordon Bunshaft, an abstract amalgam of mirror, steel and stone. After a stroll through the garden, snag a perch on one of the conveniently placed chairs (many of which are in the shade) to people-watch and contemplate.

An espresso at Dolcezza

8. Dig into Gelato at Dolcezza

The café at the Hirshhorn, located in a gorgeous room designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, is an outpost of Dolcezza. It’s no surprise, then, that in addition to specialty coffee and pastries, the café is particularly well known for its seasonal, artisanal gelato, recognized as the city’s best by the Post in 2017. Flavors on a given day may include roasted strawberry, peanut butter stracciatella or dark chocolate.

9. Embrace Butterflies at the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden

The nearby Pollinator Garden is an easy three-minute walk. The 11,000-square-foot garden is as beautiful as it is pedagogical: Discover the life cycle of the butterfly as you commune with the flowers, plants and pollinators all around you. Given the continued threat to these creatures, in steep decline since the mid-’90s due to the effects of climate change, now is the perfect time to get informed.

10. Grab a Bite at the Maryland Avenue Food Trucks

For lunch, wander down to Maryland Avenue, where a line of diverse and delicious food trucks offers something for everyone. Take your pick: gyros, artisanal grilled cheese, falafel and more may be on offer on any given day. 

11. Linger Over a Bistro Lunch at Central

If you want something a bit snazzier (or you just want your own chair), Central is just a few minutes’ walk from the museum and avoids the ho-hum cuisine of most spots in this tourist-heavy neighborhood. On the contrary, this James Beard Award-winning bistro from Chef Michel Richard marries French classics like gougères and beef bourguignon with American stalwarts like kale salad or excellent fried chicken, and is well worth the detour.

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