After living 14 years in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, my trips to the Smithsonian Institution now spark vivid memories of my children’s school projects.
There was Rob’s sixth-grade report on Indians of the Northeast, for instance. It was due on a Monday, and compelled us to spend an informative Sunday afternoon in the Native American Cultures section of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Even without the scholastic pressure, tourists would be well advised to take a similarly focused approach to visiting the world’s largest museum complex. With 16 museums and galleries, the Smithsonian overwhelms and exhausts the foolhardy explorer who wanders aimlessly through its acres of exhibits and miles of corridors.
As the Smithsonian celebrates its 150th anniversary with special events and exhibits this year, it’s more vital than ever to have a plan for your visit.
On summer vacations, families with school-age children should consider the following fall’s courses in making their plans. If your child is about to take U.S. history or government, for example, there’s fodder for a term paper in the fascinating exhibit on political kitsch in the Museum of American History.
There are assorted and rare presidential campaign buttons, of course, but also a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider doll; an Andy Jackson commemorative plate (like the Elvis collection); a Thomas Jefferson mug; a can of Goldwater, “the right drink for the conservative taste;” a bag of Jimmy Carter Peanuts; a giant Taft cigar and about a zillion other tacky tads of political memorabilia.
Earth science students and their parents will want to see the gems and geological displays at the Museum of Natural History. Whatever the subject, there are reference books for young researchers for sale in all the Smithsonian museums.
Tourists can base their plans on their own interests rather than their children’s schoolwork, of course. But it still pays to narrow your scope and to know what’s there before beginning your Smithsonian quest.
By calling 202-357-2700, you can receive a “family package” of information on exhibits and special activities for children. And the first stop upon entering any of the museums should be the information desk, which has brochures and building diagrams. Map out what you want to see and where it is before starting.
Allow some time for distractions, though. Heading to see Oscar the Grouch, Howdy Doody, Mr. Rogers’ sweater, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and other artifacts of the Children’s Television Exhibit in the Museum of American History, you’re likely to be distracted by the historic Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter. That’s where the first civil rights sit-in took place in 1960 - when the display shows that a “Super Banana Split” cost 39 cents for white folks, but black folks wouldn’t be served in the segregated South.
Here are some tips on visiting the Smithsonian from a dad who has done a lot of duty there taking his own kids on weekends and house guests in the summers:
National Air and Space Museum. The second and third stops, after the information desk, should be the Langley Theater and Albert Einstein Planetarium to buy tickets for later shows. The Langley’s IMAX movies and the Planetarium’s multimedia space odyssey are spectacular and will also provide needed places to sit after hours of walking.
As another break for kids, there are daily paper airplane contests and demonstrations on the forces of flight conducted by teenage “explainers.”
Fans of Tom Wolfe’s book or the movie “The Right Stuff” won’t want to miss seeing “Glamorous Glennis,” the X-1 in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. And you can trace space exploration from a replica of Sputnik, the Russian satellite that achieved the first orbit in 1957, through the American Apollo mission to the moon.
Amid all the high-tech, gee-whiz exhibits on the quest for unknown worlds, however, there’s a neat look at the myths and reality of World War I aviation, chronicling everything from Snoopy to the real Red Baron.
National Museum of American History. Plan on touring here in the middle of a sultry summer afternoon and pausing at the Victorian Ice Cream Parlor for a hot fudge sundae. Don’t miss the hourly display of the original Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry, Md., and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem than became the basis for our national anthem. The exhibit “From Field to Factory” shows the migration of African Americans from the South to North in the first half of the 20th Century.
This museum illustrates the need for focus and planning. Make a wrong turn and you’ll find yourself lost in a seemingly endless display of farm machines, including a 1924 John Deere tractor and a 1943 International Harvester combine.
There are collections for every hobbyist - trains, cars, coins, musical instruments (including a fascinating display on the harmonica in America). But most folks will want to pick and choose. As a Vietnam veteran, for example, I lingered at the exhibit titled “The Healing of a Nation.” It includes stuff left at the Wall - the Vietnam Memorial. Dog tags, letters to and from home, muddy jungle boots, a steel pot battle helmet with peace signs scrawled on the camouflage cover, a high school varsity letter from a former opponent of a guy who was killed in ‘Nam.
National Museum of Natural Sciences. Parents should pick up a free pass so young children can enter the Discovery Room for hands-on scientific experiments. The Native American Cultures exhibit is great - displays on different tribes and Indian gear ranging from an Arapaho tipi (I’d always supposed it was spelled teepee) to giant totem poles to a birch bark canoe. There is a special exhibit this summer on the Seminoles of Florida.
Everyone will want to see the dinosaur bones, Hope diamond and African bush elephant, but beyond those exhibits, this is another museum that requires some culling. There are extensive exhibits on birds, sea life, insects, mammals, reptiles, the Ice Age, and gems, but it would take days to examine them all.
National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art. These two treasure troves for tourists share a building about a mile away from the other Smithsonian buildings on the Mall. Because of their separate location, the Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art are seldom crowded and are well worth a visit. As a bonus, both are located within walking distance of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, two fave restaurants for kids.
As part of the 150th anniversary celebration, the Gallery has an exhibit entitled “Portrait of a Nation: 1846” that provides a good look at America in the year a federal law created the Smithsonian. There are portraits of the cultural figures of the day - writers Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson; songwriter Stephen Foster; Edwin Christy, founder of the original Christy Minstrels. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass is portrayed, as well as Gen. Winfred Scott, a hero of the Mexican War. There are also paintings of landscapes and lesser known Americans which show the fashion, lifestyle and aspirations of a people in an expanding country.
On permanent display are portraits of notable Americans: All the presidents, of course, and people ranging from Samuel Clemens to George Washington Carver to Eudora Welty.
On the other side of the building, behind “Vaquero,” a Luis Jimenez sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, is the Museum of American Art. Among the scores of artists whose works are displayed: Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Frederic Remington.
This gallery and museum provide a great getaway from the bustle and crowds of the Mall facilities.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: DON’T MISS THIS 1. Original Star Spangled Banner at the Museum of American History. 2. Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History. 3. Moon rocks at the Air and Space Museum. 4. “Ghost Clock” at the Renwick Gallery. 5. First Ladies’ gowns at the Museum of American History. 6. Wright Brothers’ plane at the Air and Space Museum. 7. Hsing-Hsing the panda at the National Zoo. 8. Dinosaur skeletons at the Museum of Natural History. 9. Mercury Friendship 7, John Glenn’s capsule for the first U.S. manned orbital flight, at the Air and Space Museum. 10. Foucault pendulum at the Museum of American History. 11. George Washington’s tent and uniform at the Museum of American History. 12. An IMAX movie at the Langley Theater in the Air and Space Museum.
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