The National Museum of American History opened in 1964 (under the name Museum of History & Technology) and is committed to collecting items that reflect the experience of the American people. It covers all things American, from politics to science, military to pop culture. During my visit the West wing of the building was closed for renovations. As much as I hate missing out on a learning opportunity, I found I was ok with this. It took me long enough to make it through the 2/3rds that was open. I decided to start the top and work my way down. I won’t even try to tell you about everything this museum holds; to even mention every gallery is too much. I will just hit on the tourist highlights and my favorite parts.
The 3rd floor East wing is dedicated to American Wars and Politics. War museums are a personal favorite of mine so I spent a long time making my way through the chronologically organized Price of Freedom exhibit. I found it exceptionally well done. There were great quick summary type blurbs about each important person/battle/etc, followed by longer explanations. It struck me as the perfect way to satisfy both quick-glance and long-haul museum goers. I enjoyed the quantity of artifacts as well. Here is George Washington’s sword which he used “only in self defense or in defense of country and its rights.”
I was disappointed to find that the War of 1812 only received one 4 foot long panel. That was a shining time for Canada…we helped burn down the White House…but Americans don’t seem to want to dwell on one of the only historic wars they didn’t win.
The sections on Korea & Vietnam were particularly interesting to me. I had spent hours and hours learning about the World Wars in Europe (slash in high school social studies) so I was fascinated to hear about the more modern and lesser known (to me) conflicts. Plus Vietnam changed the way the nation saw war. It was the first ‘televised war’ and the images captured during its duration are exceptionally powerful.
Also on this floor are exhibits dedicated to the American Presidents and First Ladies. The President’s Hall talked of life in the White House, Inauguration and assassinations. It told of how the presidents spent their times, raised their families and how the nation celebrated a new one and mourned when one was lost. Next door a long display case houses a rotating collection of Inaugural Ball gowns. I was able to see dresses dating back to Mary Lincoln Todd (Lincoln’s bipolar wife) all the way up to Michelle Obama’s latest dress. The later was stunning, the former a little conservative for my tastes 😉
The galleries on the 2rd floor East depict American Ideals. There was an exhibit on the evolution of house-hold life, one showing original art from Little Golden Books and a gallery on African American rights. This paralleled the ending of slavery in the American Civil War and the 1960’s fight to end segregation and gain equality. It also had Lincoln’s suit & hat (the one he was wearing the night he was shot)!
American Stories is a real mish-mash of things. The idea is that you can learn the stories of influential people, inventions and achievements in American History. You look one way and there’s a regimental uniform. You look another and there’s Kermit the Frog. Look left to see Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Look right for Gabby Douglas’s Olympic unitard. I enjoyed the box of musical devices through the decades, right up to & including an iTunes gift card.
The 2nd floor American experience culminates in the “can’t miss” Star Spangled Banner exhibit. It put my bunny-ears around “can’t miss” because I heard it so many freaking times…don’t miss it…did you see it?…you didn’t skip it, did you? No I saw the flag…geez. Anyway, this gallery houses the original Star Spangled Banner. The flag is 40ft by 19ft and 100 years old. On September 14th, 1814 US Soldiers flew this flag over Ft McHenry to signify a crucial victory over the British. Upon spying this flag, with its broad stripes & bright stars, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write what is now the American national anthem. It was a neat thing to see, especially how there are pieces missing from souvenir hunters who got to it before it was donated to the Smithsonian in 2008.
The pics are from the Smithsonian website, as photography is not allowed in this exhibit.
Finally, the 1st floor East summarizes American involvement in Transportation and Technology. These are definitely areas of interest for me!
Power Machinery is an area that would probably bore a lot of folks, but I took a combustion engines course in university and love to see actual models of the engines I read so much about. The Otto Atmospheric engine. The Atkinson Cycle Engine. A full model of a double-layer steam tube boiler! A Mechanical Engines Heaven!
America on the Move would have been Papa Padget’s dream. It paraded the evolution of transportation from horse & buggy to the early crank-engine cars to the modern luxury vehicles of today. There were also sections on planes, trains and automobiles…which I already mentioned but that line is incomplete without them.
Finally, I ended my visit in Lighting a Revolution. This is another exhibit that most probably breeze through but I probably spent the longest time here…especially if you judge in minutes per square foot. It’s only a small section but it is full of Edison artefacts. I love Thomas Edison…like so much…He is on my list of Top 5 Favorite Historical Figures and might even be invited to my dream “5 People Dead or Alive” dinner party. I’m sure you know that he got the world turned on to electricity. But did you know that after he died they wanted to shut all power off for a minute to honor him? However electricity was soooo important by that point that they couldn’t! Talk about making a difference in people’s lives! Display cases held things like his patents, notebooks and original inventions & prototypes.
This concludes your visit to the national Museum of American History, as well as the Smithsonian Institute. Next up: Monuments!
Love & Luck,