Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Visit to Smithsonian Institution Museums

A Visit to the Smithsonian Institution Museums Washington DC

Living just outside of Philadelphia means Washington DC is a relatively short ride from here.  It makes for a packed day trip - I remember as a student going to visit and leaving at daybreak, arriving in time to cram in a day of sightseeing, and then exhaustedly limping home.  Since Luke is studying American History, what better place (well, besides Philadelphia) is there to visit than our Nation's Capital?  However, with 5 kids, a one-day whirlwind just wasn't going to cut it.  We recently visited Washington DC for a long weekend -- but I think we still crammed just as much in!

One of the best things about Washington is many of the destination sites are free.  One of the largest free complexes is the The Smithsonian Institution. The Institution is the result of a bequest of Englishman James Smithson, to be used for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Founded in 1846 by a Congressional Act, it began as a single building (now known as "The Castle") to house a library, laboratories, a lecture hall and an art gallery, and has grown to include 19 museums and the National Zoo.  The museums are divided by topic, serving as a day-long immersion in the subject matter.  (And really, if you had the ability to check out every part of every exhibit, you could spend the better part of a week in each museum.)  The information and exhibits have sufficient depth for an adult who wanted to really have an interactive experience with history, yet have a beautiful simplicity that makes them wonderful for children as well.  On our trip, we visited the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History

The Museum of Natural History is organized into themed galleries.  From giant T. rex fossil models to tiny, delicate butterflies, you can learn about the history of the planet and its living and non-living inhabitants.  Some of the highlights of our visit:

Forensic explorations of the Roanoke settlement
 This was a traveling/limited engagement exhibit on the history of the colony at Roanoake.  

These are the remains of settler who got hit with an arrow from a Native American.  The cause of death would seem to be his wound...but modern forensic study showed it wasn't the wound that killed him, but rather sepsis from an infected tooth, and because of the infection, he was vulnerable in fighting.

Taxidermied animal in recreations of their natural habitats.  Despite having a herd of deer that live in our woods and graze in our back yard, it was actually the first time the kids saw deer "up close" and not through a telephoto lens.  Wild deer are very skittish.  (And frankly, I'm ok with not being so close to a wild, pouncing tiger.)

Also housed in the National Museum of Natural History are rocks.

 Moon rocks

 Glowing rocks

Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Institution - National Musueum of Natural History
 Icy rocks
 (the infamous Hope Diamond)

Jude enjoyed the interactive exhibits, especially this one where he could design his own meteorite and how much destruction it could leave in its wake.

And of course, we took our time wandering through the dinosaurs...

I thought this was the funniest part of the exhibit.

and through the butterfly exhibit (well worth the nominal admission charge to the specific exhibit).

On Day Two of our Smithsonian extravaganza, we visited the National Museum of American History.  (This was actually higher on our priority list than Natural History, but since we had been to see Mount Vernon on the first day of our trip, the dinosaurs got bumped to the head of the line to appease the smaller folk.)

Since we have been studying American History, this year, we spent a long time in the Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit.  I was thrilled that didn't start with the Revolution, but also included the French and Indian War, where a young Colonel George Washington witnessed firsthand the Achilles' Heel of the mighty British Army.

General Braddock's pistol, given to George Washington
 General Braddock's pistol, given to Colonel Washington when Braddock was killed in battle.

We also found some other gems that were of particular interest:

 An early fire-fighter's hat...from a Philadelphia brigade.  Luke had just finished studying Benjamin Franklin and his innovations, including the Philadelphia Fire Department.

A 19th century pumper truck.

Of course, a tour of the First Ladies' Hall:

 China belonging to Martha Washington during the Washington Administration

Jacqueline Kennedy's State Dinner gown
Jacqueline Kennedy's gown, worn at the Kennedy's first State Dinner

While not traditionally considered part of American history, but very much part of the American tapestry is food.  Among the exhibits:

Julia Child's Kitchen recreated at the Smithsonian/American History
 A recreation of cooking icon Julia Child's kitchen 

And of special interest to our family -- the history of farm packaging.  Here's hubby checking out the exhibit - he's a third-generation package supplier to the Southern NJ produce industry.  (I think they needs some boxes that say "Jersey Fresh" don't you?)

Rounding out the amazing variety of exhibits:

 A tribute to the great musician Celia Cruz 

 One of the first Apple computers -- looks a whole lot different than the one I'm typing this post on...

The American Presidency - A Glorious Burden exhibit.  Maybe someday Luke will be behind that lecturn for real!

We're already planning our next visit to Washington DC.  The one thing we planned but didn't get to do was become Junior National Rangers for the  National Monuments and National Mall - we just ran out of time before, so now we know what is first on our to-do list! 

Mount Vernon, VA is about 15 miles from Washington, DC.  If you're in the DC area for an extended time, I highly recommend making a day trip to see the home of George and Martha Washington.  You can read Luke's recount of our visit by clicking on the image at the left.

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  1. For your next road trip, I recommend Assateague Island. Your kids can see wild deer that will come close enough to lick their toes and more wild horses than you can imagine.

  2. Victoria MyLittleLBlogMarch 18, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    looks interesting, i like museums where you can find bits for every family member and it wont bore you


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