After a two-year renovation, this irresistibly eclectic museum—affectionately nicknamed “the nation’s attic,” its entire collection tops 3 million items—gives full due to such treasures as the original 30-by-42-foot Star-Spangled Banner (the veteran of an eight-year conservation, it was one of the prime inspirations for the renovation and atrium-opening of the museum, and now has its own gallery on the second floor), the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, centuries of military uniforms and weapons, steam locomotives, printing presses, a Model T Ford, children’s toys from past decades, a pendulum three stories high that shows how the Earth rotates, a collection of ball gowns worn by First Ladies, letters by George Washington, a group of roots community exhibits, a house in which five families lived over a period of two centuries, and a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers (spoiler alert: there were three altogether).
The National Museum of American History offers a dizzying array of history, nostalgia and culture
Just the collection of television objects and ephemera alone is stupefying: Fonzie’s jacket, one of Mr. Rogers’s sweaters, Archie Bunker’s chair, the 60 Minutes stopwatch, the Lone Ranger’s mask, Jim Henson’s original Oscar the Grouch and Kermit the Frog, and the (real) kitchen, pots, pans, and all, from Julia Child’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, where she began her TV career. No doubt the knife that gave her that infamous on-camera cut is there too. A new five-story-high atrium floods the museum with light, and thanks to the glass staircase and a panoramic window, you can see all the way through the museum from Constitution Avenue to the Mall and down to the Washington Monument. If you can’t find something of interest here, you may need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. For a lot of people, this ranks as their favorite Mall museum. No wonder—it offers viewers a dizzying array of history, nostalgia, technology, and culture. And kids love it. It’s a must-see for virtually all visitors.
The Hall of Musical Instruments houses a Stradivarius quartet of ornamented instruments. There’s a science lab on the first floor with experiments every half hour, a statue of George Washington as a Roman general, and a single Dumbo flying car. The spectacular dollhouse on the third floor, donated in 1951, had already had 50 years of care and furnishing. The array of fully rigged model ships on the first floor is a child pleaser too. The Hall of Transportation in the museum’s east wing features an excellent collection of cars, trains, trolleys, and motorcycles that will fascinate all ages.
TOURING TIPS Check at the information desk for a schedule of tours (usually daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.), demonstrations, concerts, lectures, films, and other activities put on by the museum staff. The Constitution Cafe (with a vintage ice cream parlor, no less) is on the first floor and a nicer-than-usual food court is on the lower level.
IF YOU LIKE THIS If the machinery is the stuff that fascinates you (or your kids), and it’s convenient enough, consider adding the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum in Alexandria to your itinerary (invent.org).
GOOD TO KNOW The National Museum of American History is located on the Mall (14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W.) The Nearest Metro stations are Smithsonian or Federal Triangle. Admission to the museum is free. It is open daily from 10 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. and closed on December 25. For more information including occasional extended summer and holiday hours check the website.