Fascinating at any time of year but especially engaging around the Fourth of July is a visit to the National Museum of American History. Where else can you view the Star Spangled Banner, learn about each of the country’s Presidents and their First Ladies, and view the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz?
At the moment, the museum is undergoing extensive renovations, scheduled to be completed 2015. The existing exhibits tend to be lower-tech than those in the newer, glitzier museums. Relying on placards, push-the-button historical kiosks, and the occasional tactile panel, this is an old-school museum experience (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
For children who have been to the newer museums such as the Newseum, and are accustomed to ‘live the moment’ and high-tech interactive features, NAHM may not engage them fully. However, there is plenty of content to absorb and this is a rewarding experience for strong readers and people with a desire to learn about American culture and history from the country’s inception.
Our first stop was at the recently redone permanent exhibit on the second floor: The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem. Patrons can learn about and view the 30′ x 34′ flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland after the bombardment of the port during the War of 1812. Even though there were relatively few tactile panels and interactive opportunities in this exhibit, each member of the Our Kids review team (three adults, five children ages 5, 6, 7, 11 and 13) was thoroughly engaged in both the historical build up and the culmination of viewing the huge, weathered flag.
Nearby was a surprising highlight of the visit: Within These Walls. This exhibit features a partially reconstructed house which used to stand in New Ipswich, Massachusetts, and is used to show the historical contributions and daily lives of five families who lived there. The house provided insight into how American life has changed over the years, but is also fascinating from an engineering and building perspective.
On the third floor are two must-see exhibits: The American Presidency and the First Ladies. With relatively few interactive opportunities, much of the historical information in the American Presidency was lost on non-readers in the group; however, for stronger readers, there is a wealth of information to absorb. All reviewers enjoyed standing behind a podium in the stead of President John F. Kennedy and other historical figures to experience the thrill of the crowd behind them (while the grownups took advantage of a prime photo opportunity).
The First Lady gowns on display mesmerized the girls (young and old alike) although the boys were quite ready to move along. As with this reviewer’s first trip to the museum, some 35 years ago, the girls in our group easily could have spent ages looking at The Miniature World of Faith Bradford exhibit, a gigantic doll house depicting in minute detail the home life of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Doll and their 10 children, grandparents and five servants in early 19th century.
The America Stories exhibition was also huge hit with the younger members of the team, not so much for the historical knowledge, but because of the recognizable pop culture icons including Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and the beloved muppet, Kermit the Frog. We suspect that the slightly hodge-podge feel of the exhibit was due to renovation considerations but the children were responsive and could have spent twice as long in there, happily writing suggestions for other items that should be featured on slips of paper and posting them on a note board.
One caveat: we saw the museum under less-than-ideal circumstances. It was an extremely hot summer day and as a result, the museum was very crowded. There were many ages in our group to appeal to and three of whom (age 6, 7 and 11) decidedly did not want to be there and a few others who wanted to read every single placard. Each of these factors could dampen any patron experience. We suspect that the renovations caused some of the somewhat haphazard presentation of some exhibitions and exacerbated the cramped feel of others.
Our advice: spend time online to plan your visit – but carefully cross-reference your list with the listing of closed and moved exhibits. For example, the AMH’s webpage “For Kids” links to the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab. From prior visits, we knew Spark!Lab to be a fascinating hands-on science activity room dedicated to innovation and invention -great for children of all ages. However, we overlooked the first webpage when it noted that it was closed for renovation. There is no reopening date is listed on the webpage, however a security guard informed us it was closed until 2015.
We look forward to revisiting NAHM after the renovations are completed to see how the museum experience has changed. In the meantime, plan your visit carefully and plot out your ‘must-sees’ since they may have been moved or closed temporarily during the renovation period.
Photo by Sarah Weingast.