Old Favorites and New Adventures: National Museum of American History

Like many of the Smithsonian museums, I view the National Museum of American History as a stop-in museum. I may have talked about this before in me National Portrait Gallery post. One of the best parts of living in DC is the ability to visit excellent museums on a whim because they have no admission fees. Given the free admission to these museums, I tend to think about them as stop-in museums. Even if I do have plans to visit them, I typically go to see a particular exhibit or two.

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Last Saturday, I left my apartment to go for a walk to the Capitol Building and ended up going a full 1.5 miles further to the museum. How did that happen? I realized during the initial part of my walk that I had never seen Julia Child’s kitchen. Since I already was feeling accomplished for packing a box, I decided I could take the time to go to a museum.

The American History museum may have my favorite entrance of the Smithsonian museums (as long as you enter from the Mall side). I think most of the Smithsonians are good at having the “wow factor” when you enter such as Air and Space and Natural History, but I love the architecture of the American History’s atrium.

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The museum was completed in 1964 and renovated in 2008. Until 1980 it was the Museum of History and Technology (National Museum of American History). They are currently updating the West Wing with lowest floor opening in the summer of 2015, the middle floor opening on June 28 this year, and the final floor opening next summer (renovation website). The museum contains several famous exhibits, such as the First Ladies (with the dresses), the Star-Spangled Banner, and American Stories (famous artifacts like the Ruby Red slippers); however, I was on a mission. I did visit those exhibits on my way out though. I made a beeline to the first floor to see FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000. Basically, I spent a good 20 minutes marveling at Julia Child and her kitchen. As someone with a love of food, I was in heaven for a few minutes looking at the kitchen and watching a video of her making an omelet.

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After the food exhibit, I found myself wandering through America on the Move, another exhibit that I had never been in and aligns with my interest in urban planning. I love how the exhibit has vehicles from boats to trains to cars, and it shows how those vehicles changed our infrastructure and how our lifestyles adapted with different forms of transportation. I also really liked how immersive parts of the exhibit were with built environments like an L station in Chicago and inside a ship.

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Hands down my favorite part of the exhibit was the streetcar part, which was actually about how DC changed with streetcars in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, I found a video of street life in the District from the streetcar era to be hypnotic and a map from 1892 to be fascinating. The streets just look so big and empty, people crossing wherever with streetcars, horses, bicycles, and a few early automobiles. The map is very interesting because most of DC is not developed, but suburbs like Cleveland Park, Petworth, and Chevy Chase are beginning to appear along streetcar lines.

The National Museum of American History is one of those public spaces in DC I am always able to see something new when I visit. The current renovation is making the exhibits in the West Wing more interactive, and each section that opens is better than the last. It definitely has items and exhibits that will interest a wide variety of people and keeps people coming back.

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