1: How Washington DC Came to Be
To begin your journey to this world-class city, uncover the origins of the District of Columbia and how the location for our national government was chosen. Learn about the original design and vision for the city by artist/engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Then trace the creation and colorful history of the National Mall, and the building of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
2: The White House and the Presidency
Track the history and the dramatic fortunes of the White House, from its building, expansion, burning, reconstruction, and further expansions down to the present. Then visit the White House, beginning with the Oval Office and Cabinet Room and following the route of a White House tour. Also visit the parks adjoining the White House, and the Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials on the National Mall.
3: The Capitol Building and the Legislature
At the seat of the U.S. legislature, learn how the Capitol building was designed, constructed, and expanded in the early years of the nation. Tour the architectural and artistic wonders of the building, from the Capitol Rotunda to the Statuary Hall, Brumidi Corridors, Hall of Columns, and other key features. Conclude with the House and Senate Chambers, and the surrounding parks and gardens.
4: The Supreme Court and the Law of the Land
Study the founding and history of the Supreme Court, from its early era as an itinerant legal body to the completion of the Court building in 1935 under William Howard Taft. Tour this extraordinary structure, its interior features, court facilities, and artistic decoration. Then explore the Court in action, encompassing courtroom procedure and how cases are selected, adjudicated, and ruled upon.
5: The Nation’s Knowledge: Library of Congress
Visit the stunning premises of the world’s largest library, starting with the story of the library’s creation in the 18th century. Begin your tour with the monumental Jefferson Building, with its glorious Beaux Arts décor, followed by the remarkable facilities of the Adams and Madison buildings. Also visit the extraordinary Folger Shakespeare Library, and DC’s beloved Eastern Market.
6: The State, Treasury, and Justice Departments
Look into the origins and functions of the State Department, and visit the United States Diplomacy Center, as well as the stellar Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Continue with the Treasury Department’s Federal Reserve buildings, the beautiful Treasury Building, and the operations of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Then take in the fascinating history and headquarters of the FBI.
7: Veterans Memorials on the Mall
At the first of three iconic war memorials, learn the poignant story behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and how this once controversial monument is now considered a masterpiece. From there, take account of the artistically conceived Korean War Veterans Memorial, and finally the World War II Memorial, and its moving tribute to the “Greatest Generation.”
8: Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon
Grasp the historic connections between Arlington National Cemetery and the American Civil War. At the Cemetery, begin by visiting some of the gravesites of famous citizens, and the former mansion of Robert E. Lee. Among landmark sites at Arlington, see the Memorial Amphitheater, the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Marine Corps Memorial, Air Force Memorial, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.
9: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
At the home and estate of George Washington, trace Washington’s early life, and his inheritance and expansion of the plantation now known as Mount Vernon. Tour the estate, highlighting the impressive interior features of the mansion, a major focal point of social and political life in Virginia. In nearby Alexandria, visit historic sites associated with the life and career of George Washington.
10: Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s Washington DC
This lecture considers how the Civil War and the Lincoln presidency transformed the city. Among key sites of the era, explore the historic Willard Hotel and its dramatic connection with Lincoln; Fort Stevens and its wartime role; the Clara Barton National Historic Site; and President Lincoln’s Cottage, the “summer White House.” Then visit Ford’s Theatre, the site and memorial of the Lincoln assassination.
11: Washington’s Civil Rights Landmarks
Witness the impact on Washington of the civil rights movement, beginning with the life and work of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and the national historic site of his home. As the focus of the lecture, take an in-depth tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, its major galleries, and 36,000 artifacts that tell the nation’s story through the lens of the black experience.
12: The Holocaust Museum
Study the background of the extraordinary United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, its mission to preserve the history of Nazi atrocities against Jews and other persecuted groups, and the movement to memorialize these events through a museum and education center. Observe how the museum poignantly evokes pre-war Jewish experience, the horror of the Holocaust, and its aftermath and legacy, through images, personal objects, and oral histories.
13: Museums on the Mall: Smithsonian and Beyond
In a panoramic overview of the Smithsonian Institution, begin at the National Museum of American History, and its collection of historical treasures. Continue with the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the phenomenal collections of the National Air and Space Museum. Conclude with the wealth of art museums on the National Mall.
14: Washington, City of Scandal
Delve into the history of political scandals in Washington, and how the nation has come to terms with them. Learn first about the 19th-century Burr Conspiracy, focusing on former Vice President Aaron Burr. Then take stock of the scandals under President Ulysses S. Grant, the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, and finally the Watergate scandal, finishing at the Newseum, a media history museum.
15: The Kennedy Center and the DC Arts Scene
Within Washington’s hotbed of live entertainment, visit the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with its multiple performance spaces. Then learn about the National Theatre, The Shakespeare and Folger theatres, DC’s outstanding regional theaters, and music offerings from the National Symphony Orchestra to venues featuring jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, and alternative music.
16: Neighborhoods of Northwest DC
DC’s Northwest Quadrant is home to some of the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. Take in the beautiful architecture of Embassy Row, and that of two magnificent nearby mansions. Visit the Dupont Circle neighborhood and its extraordinary museums, as well as those of The George Washington University. Finish with a first look at the history and cultural richness of Georgetown.
17: Washington’s Historic Homes and Gardens
Washington’s private homes provide a fascinating window into the city’s history. Begin at the pre-Revolutionary colonial building of the Old Stone House, which shows how early DC citizens lived. Then discover three grand and storied mansions in Upper Georgetown. Visit the remarkable Octagon House; the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden of Marjorie Merriweather Post; and Woodlawn Plantation, which became a “free labor colony” with lots owned and farmed by free African Americans.
18: Spiritual DC: The National Cathedral and More
Take account of the plethora of religious institutions in Washington and consider the role of faith in the city’s history. Stop first at St. John’s Episcopal Church, closely associated with the presidency, and DC’s architecturally rich Catholic churches. Visit Jewish and Muslim houses of worship, and finally take in the historic and artistic treasures of the Washington National Cathedral.
19: Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Trace the history and mission of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a Smithsonian institution now housing 300 animal species. Learn about the National Zoo’s remarkable exhibits of zoological rarities, from the clouded leopard to the giant panda. Take note of the National Zoo’s approach to recreating natural habitats, and the institution’s deep involvement with animal research and conservation of endangered species.
20: Dining Out in Washington DC
Washington offers an astonishing wealth of dining experiences, from historic to contemporary. First discover two of DC’s longstanding food traditions: seafood and soul food. Visit treasured historic restaurants around the city, and delve into the city’s world cuisine, from Ethiopian and Mediterranean to global fusion. Also take note of food festivals that take place in DC throughout the year.
21: Washington’s New Waterfront
Investigate the history of DC’s riverfronts on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and the outstanding revitalization programs now underway. Stop at Kingman and Heritage Island Park, and Anacostia Park, featuring trails, boat tours, and wildlife watching. Then visit National Harbor, District Wharf, and the Georgetown waterfront, with their many dining, shopping, and cultural offerings.
22: Washington for Sports Fans
Sports have a longstanding place in the history and culture of DC. Track the backstory of baseball, football, and basketball teams in Washington, and learn where to watch and play these highly popular sports now. Delve also into DC’s hockey and soccer scene, and the abundance of “imported” sports in the capital, from rugby and cricket to Irish hurling and Gaelic football.
23: Exploring Washington’s Great Outdoors
DC contains an array of beautiful green spaces, offering an alternative to the urban landscape. Among many, discover the story and the amenities of historic Rock Creek Park, and the riverfront walks and outdoor activities along the Potomac Heritage Trail. On the Anacostia River, visit Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, with its plethora of wildlife, and the botanical riches of the United States National Arboretum.
24: The National Archives and the Future of DC
Finally, learn about the treasures within the National Archives, including original copies of America’s founding documents, historic murals, and the poignant “Records of Rights” exhibit. Revisit the history of DC, and consider city plans that were never realized, “disappeared” Washington, and proposals for the city’s future. Conclude with thoughts on the dynamic, changing environment of DC.
25: General Colin Powell
Although not a native to D.C., there is no doubt that General Colin Powell has made an impact on the city. Follow his path through his years of military service to eventually becoming the number-one person in the United States Armed Forces: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his interview, you’ll get an insider’s perspective of what it’s like to work in the Pentagon and insights into the monuments and museums in D.C. that mean the most to General Powell.
26: Lonnie G. Bunch III, Smithsonian
As the founding director of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch III has played an enormous role in the museum’s 4.5 million visitors, the museum’s overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim, and the museum’s numerous awards garnered. He shares the challenges he faced in getting the museum from its planning stages to its fruition as a completed structure. Plus, he provides fascinating insights into what the unique and symbolic design choices for the museum building represent, and what it took to obtain the robust collection of artifacts that it houses.
27: Ellen Miles, Smithsonian
Ellen Miles, Curator Emerita at the National Portrait Gallery for the last 39 years, shares some amazing insider information about art, artists, and must-sees in the museum. In this insightful interview, she provides a deep dive into the history of one of the most recognizable paintings in America: the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. She’ll also take you through highlights of the Gallery, including a special guest portrait that brought lines of visitors to the museum.
28: Yo-Yo Ma
One of the most talented cellists and musicians in the world, Yo-Yo Ma, discusses what it’s like to perform in the nation’s capital and why art and culture is such an imperative part of D.C. Hear his perspective on the Kennedy Center as the nation’s platform for performing arts and how his own history is intertwined with this iconic institution.
29: Joseph Alonso, National Cathedral
The head stone mason at the National Cathedral, Joseph Alonso, provides first-hand insights into this iconic cathedral. He shares a perspective on the history, creation, architecture, and design that you won’t get anywhere else—including getting up close and personal with the unique gargoyles and sharing how the mid-Atlantic earthquake of 2011 affected the structure.
30: Brandie Smith, National Zoo
Brandie Smith, the associate director for Animal Care Sciences at the National Zoo, discusses one of the most popular attractions: the pandas. Hear some adorable stories of these lovable and unique residents—how the Zoo came to have pandas, how they are taken care of, what their personalities are like, how they play, and so much more.
31: José Andrés, Chef and Philanthropist
José Andrés has brought a whole new concept of food and cooking to Washington, D.C., and is using food to change the world. Hear how his travels influenced his culinary styles, in turn, influenced the way D.C. views food. Further, hear how he has taken his passion for cooking to create philanthropic endeavors and to help D.C become one of the food capitals of the world.
32: David M. Rubenstein, Philanthropist
David Rubenstein is the chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and the Chairman of the Kennedy Center. He also is an amazing philanthropist, having given millions of millions of dollars to the Washington Monument, the National Zoo, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the White House Historical Association, and various other causes. Hear directly from him why he is a champion of American history and what D.C. means to him.
Objects have an amazing ability to connect us to history in a powerful, emotional, visceral way.
Objects have an amazing ability to connect us to history in a powerful, emotional, visceral way.
About Richard Kurin
Dr. Richard Kurin is the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian's national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Kurin has worked at the Smithsonian for almost four decades, starting with the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976. For decades he directed the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, representing the diversity of America's cultural traditions at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, in Folkways recordings and other publications. He has produced programs on American history and culture for several presidential inaugurations and for the Olympics, as well as the National World War II Reunion for the opening of the World War II Memorial. Before becoming Under Secretary, Dr. Kurin directed the Smithsonian's National Programs, sending exhibitions and educational offerings across the United States. Dr. Kurin has served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and drafted an international treaty on safeguarding the world's living cultural heritage. He represents the Smithsonian on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, as well as the White House Historical Association. He has been awarded the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service and numerous other honors.
Dr. Kurin has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and frequently lectures at The George Washington University, as well as at universities and museums across the country and around the world. He regularly blogs for Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian Journeys, has given hundreds of speeches, and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs.
Dr. Kurin is the author of scores of scholarly articles and several books, including Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem; Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian; and Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture of, by, and for the People. His latest book is The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, a national bestseller that provides the basis for this Great Course