Not to Be Missed:
What makes the Smithsonian National Museum of American History excellent is its staff’s ability to make engaging displays out of almost any part of the country’s past, from huge, in-depth examinations of U.S. military conflicts, to The Muppets. There’s something here to entertain every member of your family, and they may learn something along the way.
The west side of Floor 2 is undergoing refurbishment through the end of 2017, and the west side of Floor 3 until 2018. That makes it easier to tour the entire museum in a long morning or afternoon, including lunch.
Start your tour on Floor 3 East, with the Price of Freedom, a walk-through educational exhibit on the causes, campaigns, and outcomes of every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. Each is given its own section, and the entire collection takes up almost a third of Floor 3. Within each war, photos, video, and soldiers’ memorabilia described what the fighting was like, along with personal and newspaper accounts of the war effort.
Even relatively minor skirmishes, such as the Spanish-American War, get wall-sized treatments within the exhibit; the Civil and World Wars are multiple hallway-length presentations. A great many of the items on display are shown at child-friendly heights, too, making it easier for kids to engage. The one downside to all this detail is that you can be overwhelmed with facts by the time you reach Iraq and Afghanistan. Pace yourself by not overdoing it in the first big section (on the Revolutionary War).
Also on Floor 3 are the Gunboat Philadelphia, a partially-restored ship sunk during battle in the Revolutionary War; First Ladies, which shows the gowns and china patterns of America’s presidential spouses; and American Presidency, describing the daily responsibilities and lives of America’s presidents, through photos, video, and personal objects. Each of these is worth a quick walk-through; they’re not nearly as long or in-depth as Price of Freedom.
Next, make your way to Floor 2 Center and the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit. The U.S. national anthem was written by Francis Scott Key after a long nighttime battle outside Baltimore, Maryland, during the War of 1812. During the fight, the British Navy attacked Maryland’s Fort McHenry while Key, an American, was stuck on the HMS Tonnant, trying to negotiate the release of American prisoners. Because it was night, Key couldn’t determine how well his fellow Americans were doing in the fight. Given the power of the British navy at the time, things didn’t look good for the Yanks.
The flag you see here is the same one Key saw at morning above Fort McHenry 200 years ago, signifying that the U.S. defenses had held. This marked the penultimate major battle in the war, which ended a few weeks later.
In the days and years after the battle, the flag was flown in all kinds of weather, and parts were snipped off as souvenirs. Today it sits in a dimly lit, climate controlled environment to help preserve its color and fabric.
In Floor 2 East is American Stories, a collection of the museum’s memorabilia on different subjects (and often pop culture). You’re likely to see anything from Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, to Kermit the Frog, to a piece of Plymouth Rock. The objects usually don’t have anything to do with each other, and there’s often enough variety for everyone in the family to find something interesting.
Also don’t miss the Woolworth’s lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, where four legends from North Carolina A&T State University (Len’s alma mater), staged a sit-in in 1961 to protest segregation. #AggiePride.
After this, make your way to Floor 1. Start on the east side, with the Food Exhibitions. It begins with a look at TV chef Julia Child’s kitchen. From there you’ll see displays on everything from how pre-packaged meals have changed American family meals, to the impact that microwaves, migrant labor, and California wines have had on what Americans eat.
The next series of exhibits are roughly related: On the Water and America on the Move are transportation-related displays, covering shipping, railroads, cars, and trucks, from the 1700’s through the late 20th century. You’ll see full-size vehicles (including trains!), huge dioramas, and some excellent narrative to link it all together. It’s one of the best parts of the museum.
Beyond these are 3 smaller presentations: Lighting a Revolution explains how Edison’s lightbulb helped the Industrial Revolution; and Stories on Money covers the history of coins and money, with a focus on American currency and its role in society.
The latest big display to open at the museum is its Innovation Wing on Floor 1 West, which traces the history of capitalism in the United States through a series of objects and case studies. If your group contains kids, you can point out (for example) how much of the early U.S. economy was dominated by farming, agricultural products, and slavery. The Industrial Revolution changed that, and with it, the relationship between capital and labor. Give the museum credit for not shying away from that topic: one of the graphs on display shows how labor’s share of productivity gains has flattened out over the past few decades, one reason why middle-class wages have stagnated.
Finally, the hallways and common areas of the museum typically display collections of less well-known Americana, from lightbulb collections to unusual machines sent to the U.S. Patent Office. You could spend a few enjoyable, air-conditioned hours just browsing these too.
The museum’s size makes it easy to tour on even busy days. On holidays and other peak times, you’ll find it easier to arrive 30 minutes before opening, or after 3 PM.
The museum’s cafeteria has an excellent selection of food, prepared well, at somewhat high prices (but remember that admission is free). Service is excellent.