The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC
by Katie Beltramo
I was looking forward to visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for the first time ever on our Washington, DC visit. I’ll admit it: I’m a history junkie. My kids are—so far—less enthralled with history than I am, and with their lack of knowledge of pop culture (really, how impressed would your kid be with seeing The Fonz’s jacket?), I feared that they might be bored.
Like the other Smithsonian Museums, it’s free and it can be busy. We arrived first thing in the morning and were pleasantly surprised to find street parking very close to the entrance (on a weekend in the summer, no less!). We met up with our local friends who advised us to check out the Star Spangled Banner first. Because it’s in a special dimly-lit and environmentally controlled area and it’s so popular, it gets crowded early, so it was a smart first stop. In retrospect, I wish that we’d taken our trip to Fort McHenry in Baltimore prior to this visit, which would have provided a better context to make my kids appreciate the flag.
Then we headed to the America On the Move exhibit, which is our local-preschool friend’s favorite. It makes sense: it’s a transportation enthusiast’s dream with plenty of cool vehicles and life-size exhibitions that allow visitors to become part of the historical tableaux. My kids have loved climbing into subway trains at other museums, but at the Smithsonian the experience was enhanced with sound, motion, and even a video of 50s-era passengers entering and exiting.
Another huge hit was the Invention at Play exhibition, which was jam-packed with information about American technology presented in a child-welcoming environment. While my kids attempted to windsurf, I read biographies of inventors.
Then we were off to the Spark!Lab, which is an area for kids to do building, scientific experiments, and more. Helpful staff conducted more complicated experiments from behind the counter, and they did a great job of making sure that all visitors were included. There was a small section designed for the under-two set, which is always helpful. Once again the kids were enthralled, and they just didn’t want to leave. Frankly? It was killing me. The kids were learning, engaged, having fun, and I just wanted to explore the rest of the place. Julia Child’s Kitchen is right next to the lab, and at one point I just had to run over and do some exploring, even though my friends and their kids were all in the lab. When I came back my good-mom friend murmured, “I just love watching their minds work. You can almost see the wheels turning. It’s one of my favorite things about having kids.” And I felt like the Worst Mother Ever.
Honestly, we didn’t get very far in the museum. My daughters enjoyed choosing their favorite First Ladies dress and were even more impressed once they finally registered that that was, in fact, Michelle Obama’s gown and shoes. They might not remember Fonzi, but they remember the last inauguration. We did a quick stop by the Greensboro Lunch Counter, but when I started to explaining its historical significance in the Civil Rights movement to my daughter, she interrupted “Mom,” she said. “Stop explaining it to me if it’s going to make you cry.” Because that’s what I was doing, having a patriotic, history geek weep-fest right there at the museum.
We spent about three hours at the museum and decided to have lunch at home instead of eating at one of the museum cafes. Our kids ranged from preschooler to tween, and everyone spent the morning engaged with the splendors of history, but the kids were running out of steam. If you’re wondering if your kids would enjoy the Museum of American History, they absolutely will. But if you really, really love history you might want to go all by yourself!
© 2011, Katie Beltramo
Katie Beltramo, a mother of two, is Editor of Kids Out and About-Albany and blogs at Capital District Fun.