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MATTHEW GIRARD for TIME

PIONEERS: A work by Frida Kahlo, one of 800 artists represented in the Museum of Women in the Arts

Washington is a city of famous museums — the Smithsonian, the National Archives, even the White House. But could those attractions be too famous? Visitors who are drawn to them almost automatically may not realize that the U.S. capital boasts a second tier of smaller, more specialized museums that are equally fascinating and often possess distinct advantages over their bigger, better-known brethren. For starters, they are less crowded, and are often inexpensive or free. In these institutions, adventurous tourists can find colorful, offbeat exhibits highlighting world-class collections, in some cases the only ones of their kind.

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