Go With a Purpose.
A blog about connecting through places that matter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Shocking Good Time at the National Museum of American History

Star Spangled Banner DisplayThird-graders and museums don't always go hand-in-hand. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I chaperoned a group of third-grade boys and girls on a field trip to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It was the first time any of us had visited the museum since it reopened following a two-year renovation. I was excited to see the new museum and hoped my group would enjoy the experience. We set off with the goal of seeing everything on the teacher’s scavenger-hunt list.

Our first stop brought us to the museum’s centerpiece -- the Star Spangled Banner. The dramatic wall art of a sparkling flag confirmed immediately we were in for a treat. The new display is designed with climate controls and dim light to protect the flag. We walked along a ramp with wall displays that described the flag’s history, Fort McHenry and the War of 1812. As we exited, we learned more about Mary Pickersgill, the woman who made the flag. I wasn’t surprised that the kids gravitated towards the interactive computer screen of the flag, where they used the touch screen to learn more about the flag’s history.

All of the new interactive and hands-on features kept the kids interested and engaged. But the museum’s Invention at Play and Spark Lab exhibits were the two that really got the kids excited!

Invention at Play is an interactive and engaging area that let us explore the creative process and the problem-solving skills that lead to new inventions. At Spark Lab, a hands-on science lab, a museum staff scientist conducted an experiment about electricity that "shocked" the students. The expressions on their faces were priceless!

I showed the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina to my group. I was surprised by how this multicultural group of kids was unfazed by my dramatic explanation of the civil rights sit-in that had occurred at this site back in 1960. It was good to see such progress in just under 50 years.

If you’re looking for Fonzie's leather jacket or Archie Bunker's chair, they are no longer on exhibit. And the First Ladies dress collection seems downsized. But don't let these changes keep you from going. The museum feels fresh and contemporary as it presents America's past and inspires you to connect with history in your own way. It was fun to watch my group of third-graders discover history through the interactive exhibits and connect in a way that was different from how I experienced history at their age.

I'll return to this museum someday soon. But on my next trip I hope to move at a slower pace, lingering a little longer to soak in America’s history.

Have you visited the renovated National Museum of American History? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Mary Billingsley is the Director of Media Relations at Heritage Travel, Inc., a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Photo credits: Star Spangled Banner, Flickr, catface3 . Woolworth Lunch Counter; the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Web site.


  1. There are lots of other things that used to be great attractions that are not yet (if ever) on display, such as the gunboat Philadelphia. I did not find the new decor very inspiring but I guess many might find that far more interesting than the artifacts.

  2. Thank you for reading my blog post and thanks for your comment. Personally, I think the newly designed entryway is so striking. The Star Spangled Banner wall art and the new skylights are inviting and bright. But design is always open for interpretation! I do wish the "Thanks for the Memories" exhibit was larger. I suspect the entire museum collection of "America's attic" is larger than we can comprehend.

    The National Museum of American History Web site lists the Gunboat Philadelphia as located on the third floor/east. Maybe you can still see it on display! http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibition.cfm?key=38&exkey=76

    Mary Billingsley, director of media relations

  3. My 3 year old was excited to see Dumbo at the American History museum and my 10 year old liked the Spark lab and science enclosure. It is a great museum for kids.

  4. I am a volunteer at the NMAH and many of the exhibits that are a bit smaller now will be expanding over the next 2-4 years (e.g. First Ladies and Thanks for the Memories, etc.) - and other new exhibits will open as well. On 4/29, an Inaugural Photo exhibit opened. On 5/22, "On the Water - Stories from Maritime America" will open. And in June, an exhibt on Money will open. Go to www.americanhistory.si.edu over the next few years and you will see a lot of changes and updates.

  5. Thank you for the insight on the upcoming expansion of the exhibits. The First Ladies exhibit has always been a favorite of mine and I'm thrilled to hear this news! I will definitely go and see the "On the Water" and the "Money" exhibit. Feel free to keep us posted!

    Jacqueline Gaulin
    Manager, Web Content & Customer Experience, Heritage Travel, Inc.



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