The art and adventure of choosing a great getaway is often discovering a destination within a destination. One of the greatest rewards of travel is teasing out the most fascinating, unique, noteworthy and remarkable places on the planet. A more-than-exciting experience unfolds day-in and day-out at the National Museum of American History located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Part of the Smithsonian Institution community, the Museum offers an incomparable collection that informs and excites the many millions of guests who visit every year.
The Museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director, John L. Gray, finds the impact of viewing the Star Spangled Banner, which inspired our national anthem, a particularly moving experience. “It is the actual flag that Francis Scott Key saw in 1814 flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor,” he explains. “From democracy to religion to food, we weave the ideals and ideas of America into a story-based narrative on how and why we are all Americans. We bring history to life through a theater program that immerses visitors in the story of civil rights in front of the actual Woolworth’s lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., that was at the center of the desegregation struggle. Our new Unity Square has hands-on activities that invite audiences to explore our democracy and ask themselves, ‘What does it mean to be American?’”
National treasures on exhibit recall America’s historic past and include the desk at which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the top hat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night he was assassinated, as well as the cane chair Lee sat in and the leather-backed seat Grant occupied at Appomattox Court House when discussing the terms that brought an end to the Civil War.
First Ladies gowns are also on view, as is the shawl worn by Susan B. Anthony to symbolize her crusade in support of a woman’s right to vote. Thomas Edison’s carbon-filament light bulb from the first public demonstration of the electric incandescent lamp—and for photography buffs, the original Kodak camera from George Eastman, exemplify items that originally wowed Americans and quickly became part of practical living. Entertainment favorites include the Muppets, and a number of them are on view including Oscar the Grouch, the Swedish Chef, Prairie Dawn. Kermit himself will go on view March 22. Ben Franklin’s London Printing Press is one of the oldest pieces in the Museum’s collection of three million objects, or as Gray calls them: “the real treasures and touchstones of our shared national history.”
New gifts to the museum feature artifacts from major league baseball players, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. “Sting donated his 1978 Fender Stratocaster guitar in September 2016 and we added our first object related to Eliza Hamilton, a portrait, in November 2016,” says Gray, who joined the museum in 2012 following a career in commercial banking in Denver and California, time at the Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C., and his retirement from the Autry National Center of the American West, where he served as president and CEO. Gray grew up on Quincy Farm in Cherry Hills Village and worked at Larimer Square, Denver’s first historic district, earned his MBA at the University of Colorado and also holds a master’s degree in Eastern classics from Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M.
The museum welcomes guests of all ages. Six and under visitors—and their adult escorts—are delighted by the fun-filled, 1,700-square-foot Wegmans Wonderplace. Fitted out with touchables to tickle the imagination and sounds effects that surprise, the playful learning expedition invites little ones to engage. The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation offers Draper Spark!Lab where kids ages 6-12 explore science, technology, engineering and math along with art, museum and creativity themes.
The three floors of what Gray calls “the reinvented West Wing,” comprise half of this astonishing structure. Gray says this recently completed space “explores the themes of innovation, democracy, capitalism, peopling of America, religion and culture through exhibitions all filled with national treasures, interactives and live programs that bring our history to life. There is a new Music Hall where our Chamber Orchestra performs, a full presentation kitchen for cooking programs and a stage for our fantastic Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and in Unity Plaza, we feature our interactive Civic Discourse program.”
The National Museum of American History is the perfect place to begin a visit to Washington, D.C. As the nation evolves, the National Museum of American History will continue to play an important role in preserving our history, curating engaging programming, implementing a vibrant rotating exhibition schedule and relating the “dynamic and inclusive stories of America,” according to Gray. “Our mission is to create a more humane nation and that is never-ending.”
“America’s Listening” opens in fall 2018, along with the official opening of the music hall and the Ruby Slippers will return to public view.
Additional exhibitions focused on culture and the arts will open in 2020.
National Museum of American History
Constitution Ave. NW, between 12th and 14th Streets, Washington, D.C.
Free admission/No tickets required.
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25.
Draper Spark!Lab and Wegmans Wonderplace are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Tuesdays.
Marge D. Hansen treasures the time she has spent in museums around the world, most recently The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and the National Museum of Singapore. She is also a regular contributor to Museum Store magazine.
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