I first went to this museum back in college, but this was the first time with little kids. This museum is more of an adolescent-to-adult targeted situation compared to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History with it’s stuffed animals, dinosaur bones, and gemstones. But it seems like they are attempting to expand the American History offerings a bit.
I’ll start off with the new exhibit and then discuss some logistics and a bit of the rest of the museum at the end.
Wegmans Wonderplace (sponsored by the Wegmans grocery stores that people rave about but I’ve never been to) is located on the ground floor of the museum, just past the kid-friendly Inventors exhibit. The Wonderplace room offers play/learning for kids under 6.
And it’s crowded on weekends! The kids didn’t have a hard time playing, though. I sat on the benches at the back with the baby. They are breastfeeding-friendly–equipped with nursing pillows and all! Also FYI there’s a good bathroom inside the Wonderplace. It has one of those adorable tiny toilets, too. Before I was a mom I never staked out where the good bathrooms were, did you?
But back to the exhibit.
The main structure is a boat themed climb and slide. Definitely a thumbs-up for the slide lovers. There’s a play kitchen and small farm. There are are a few pieces of history on display, too. I totally played with that barn, still have it, and my kids play with it now.
There is a small area for toy play and a special zone for babies. Basically, the exhibit is a miniature children’s museum. One neat feature is the portrait wall. I felt like it was a missed opportunity to add some color to the exhibit.**
I asked one of the attendants about what the room is like on weekdays and she said it’s usually empty (especially in the afternoon) unless school is out. She also said that when the room is not so crowded that the attendants can interact more with the kids, ask questions and explain things. So that might be interesting. When we went into the room, we didn’t need to wait but we noticed later that there was a wait. This was after lunch on a Saturday.
This is also the museum that houses the OG American flag that yet waved over the land of the free and home of the brave at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. You can also see The Ruby Slippers and clothes worn by Presidents and First Ladies. Mrs. Obama’s white gown is there putting all the others to shame. (Disclaimer: I tried and failed to take a suitable photograph of it. There was a nightmare trifecta of spotlights, black walls and a glass box.)
And this was amazing to see.
**Overall I was a bit disappointed with the lack of diversity in the museum’s exhibits. There was some, but it tended to be separated and/or negative and still not representative of the Americans I know. Hopefully this is something that I will see change.
It’s really interesting to walk through some of these old-timey items with brand-new people. “This is a phonograph; it’s a very old record player… which is, um, you know what a CD is, right?”
So we had a nice visit to a more historical type of museum. Before we went I explained to my son that this would be different from other museums we have been to, which are geared more toward children and/or nature. It’s difficult for young children to really comprehend time. What’s the difference between 10 and 100 years to a person who is five? They have enough difficulty with “this week” and “last week.” I tried to put it into context for him. For example, some of the toys might have been around when his granddad’s dad was a little boy. Or when Nana was a little girl. Or me! (Yes, my toys are relics now. I’m officially old.)
I think the part they enjoyed most after the Wonderplace was the section on Inventions and Inventors. They have several hands-on installations and a room to do some nifty tinkering-type projects. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a madhouse on Saturday. I think we would have enjoyed it even more during the week. Basically you have to weigh the pros and cons of weekday traffic with weekend crowds. But it was well worth the trip either way.
Some Logistics of the Smithsonian Museum of American History
Admission: You can’t beat FREE! If you would like a map you must purchase it for a whopping $1. Donations are also appreciated.
Parking: If you go on the weekend, part at the Reagan building. The $13 all-day rate is worth it. Be prepared to go through security in your car when you drive up and when coming back through the building to get your car. On weekdays, I recommend the Metro subway to Federal Triangle.
Eating: There’s a small cafe at the entrance and a much larger cafeteria in the basement level. They are expensive, but there are decent choices and vegetarian options. It seems like basically the same food at the Natural History museum has.
Lactating: There are several benches scattered around the museum and I nursed on many of them.
Strolling: No problem with strollers throughout the museum. Bring it.
Shopping: There’s a huge gift shop that looks like a nightmare, but it’s quite avoidable because it sort of hides behind a big staircase that’s straight ahead when you enter. We didn’t go in.
Other notes: In the basement by the cafeteria is a large room of ride simulators. Tickets cost $7 but the under 5s are free. My kids wanted to do it but got scared before they got in. Though there’s no age restriction, my husband said it would have definitely been too scary for them.
Have you been to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History? What was your favorite part? Which other museums should we visit in Washington, D.C.?