The National Museum of American History

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 15, 2001

Few museums can match this one in its breadth and scope. Far from being merely a jingoistic celebration of America, it traces all the major streams of the country's historical and cultural development with wings devoted to agricultural advances, maritime and shipbuilding history, road and rail transport as well as electricity. A large section is also dedicated to the fundamental changes that took place during the American Industrial Revolution between 1790 and 1860. All this is in the East Wing of the ground floor.

The West Wing of the ground floor is devoted to Science in American Life. This is an exhaustive look at American scientific history from 1876 to the present. Topics such as DNA and the Information Age are covered with care and include many hands-on exhibits specifically aimed at children.

On the second floor, you'll find, among other things, the original Star Spangled Banner from Fort McHenry, the flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that eventually became the American national Anthem. You'll also see mock-ups of White House rooms decorated as they were in the early 20th century as well as ball gowns of most American First Ladies.

The third floor is given over to printing, the graphic arts, coins, ceramics, musical instruments, and military memorabilia. There's also the first American gunboat, once captained by Benedict Arnold, as well as a moving exhibition focusing on the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II entitled, "Toward a More Perfect Union." It shines a rather harsh light on an unfortunate period in our history, one from which much has been learned since those dark days.

Visiting the Museum
My advice is to make sure you have a plan of attack before entering this gigantic edifice. With the help of a good guide good -- I'm a staunch advocate of the Michelin Green Guides, by the way -- decide what you most want to see and then prioritize the list. Once inside, quite single-mindedly go through the list, exhibit by exhibit, and try to ignore anything that comes between. If you don't do this, there's a very, very good chance that you'll find yourself sidetracked and never get to the exhibits you actually did want to concentrate on.

Food and Cafeteria Warning
Watch out here: the prices are pretty high, first of all. On the ground floor soon after entering you'll find a sort of snack bar with sandwiches and pastries with tables set up nearby. Beyond is a low room divider that separates this area off from another cafeteria. They appear to be one and the same operation. In fact, they aren't, and if you buy something from the outer snack bar, you are not allowed to take the food inside and use their tables there even if someone else in your party gets something from that one! Forewarned is forearmed.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
14th Street And Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC
(202) 357-1300

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