Three years ago, in 2012, my daughters and I made our way to the National Museum of American History to visit Spark!Lab, our favorite downtown destination for kid-friendly, hands-on science exploration. To our dismay, the popular exhibit was closed, and we left disappointed.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon expecting the museum, and especially the new wing, to be crowded, and we were right! Crowds of visitors streamed through the new exhibit spaces: American Enterprise, Places of Invention, the Object Project, and Inventing in America, among others. In a nutshell, the 45,000-square foot space celebrates the history of American innovation.
Overall the Wing is geared toward adults and older kids, but younger children will most likely enjoy the interactive displays. Our daughters, ages 8 and 13, especially enjoyed the Object Project, which highlights the invention of everyday items – from refrigerators to ready-to-wear clothing – that changed everyday life. The American Enterprise exhibit also offers fascinating historical displays broken into four chronological eras, but the lighting is very low in the 8,000-square foot space, and I found it challenging to absorb much of the information while also keeping a close eye on our 8-year-old.
We then headed into the newly re-opened Spark!Lab, which, under the slogan “where museum visitors become inventors,” now offers an entirely new experience.
The space was light and bright, but very crowded with adults and children. We found it both overwhelming and challenging to determine the flow of the space; in other words, where we should go and what we should do. After wandering about for a few minutes, our younger daughter became interested in one of the six workstations, where she remained engaged for close to a half hour. (Each workstation offers four stools, so plan to spend most of the time standing if you arrive on a crowded day.)
The exhibit space is designed to replicate an inventor’s workshop, so diverse materials and resources are available. The opening theme for July to October 2015 is “Things that Roll,” so the workstations were titled Far and Fast, Toys on the Move, Transfer and Deliver, Virtual Navigation, High Wire Driver and Rolling Robotics. Each workstation also offers three steps to help keep kids on track with their project.
Kids have a chance to practice the “Its,” which are, according to the museum’s website:
- Identify a problem or need (Think It)
- Conduct Research (Explore It)
- Make sketches (Sketch It)
- Build prototypes (Create It)
- Test the invention (Try It)
- Refine the invention (Tweak It)
- Market the invention (Sell It)
The Hub is another area in addition to the workstations, offering colored tapes, glue, markers, scissors, cardboard, popsicle sticks, paper, pencils and more. The Hub provides more space for children and families to create and invent together. Staff and volunteers are identifiable by yellow aprons, but some are more involved with helping visitors than others.
The Thinking Spot is a small area near the back with a table and a few books, such as Inventor McGregor and Girls Think of Everything, among others. It could be a calm space to get away from the crowds, but it is very compact.
Overall, Spark!Lab is better suited for older kids. The museum recommends the exhibit for ages 6 to 12. Honestly our review team preferred the old Spark!Lab, but as we learned from our visit, innovation is a good thing. We also suspect that the crowds are due in part that the new exhibits just opened and hopefully a weekday during non-peak hours would make for a more ideal visit.
Good to Know
- Restrooms, elevator, escalators, stairs and benches are all conveniently located near the entrance to the new Innovation Wing.
- A restaurant is located on the lower level, and each level also offers a museum store.
- Some on-street (free, 3-hour limit) parking is available, but the museum is also metro accessible via the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations.
- The museum is open daily except December 25. Hours are generally 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. During summer months, hours may extend until 7:30 p.m. on some days. Check the museum’s website for the day’s hours before heading out.
- Spark!Lab is open daily except Tuesdays and December 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Admission to the National Museum of American History and Spark!Lab are free.
Photos courtesy of Erin Link.