Sunday, January 18, 2009

Things to do in DC: National Museum of American History

After closing it's doors two years ago for extensive renovations, the National Museum of American History on the DC Mall reopened in November of 2008. And a couple weeks ago, my Mom and I visited to check out the new digs and see the special exhibition of The Gettysburg Address, one of the few original copies hand-written by Abraham Lincoln.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I like my museums to feel like museums. Old marble, maybe some dust gathering in the corridors, none of this light and airy crap. And what the American History Museum has is a nice marriage of traditional and modern. Walking in the front entrance (which is actually the entrance opposite of the Mall), you enter a huge gallery lined with random pieces of American history. C3PO from Star Wars! A nineteenth century bicycle! Things like that, all displayed in long cases the entire length of the hall. And while there is a huge skylight in the main hall, things don't feel too disconnected from the museum of old.

And very smartly, the bathrooms and lockers are located right next to the entrance. Thanks layout planners!

In fact, the only disappointment I had is that the museum eliminated the huge pendulum that used to swing in front of the star spangled banner. Sigh. Memories.

As for the flag itself, it's been moved to a glass enclosed viewing area which seems much more logical than having it hanging out in the middle of the air. It also underwent some extensive cleaning, but honestly, it looked the same to me. Which is as it should be.

I was surprised by the small number of exhibits that are currently out. I distinctly remember there being about twice as many First Lady gowns on display as there are now, but I have a feeling the curators are still getting settled in the new space. And they probably like to bring new things from time to time and put some thing backs in storage. Most shocking was how small Mary Todd Lincoln's waist much have been and how cute Kermit the Frog's felt hands are. I mean, I saw Kermit! The actual Kermit! And Oscar the Grouch. Other than the Gettysburg Address, the pop culture and entertainment display was my favorite. We Americans can get so nostalgic over our entertainment.

As for the Gettysburg Address, we were fortunate to have arrived right when the museum opened on a Sunday on a non-holiday weekend. Which means the place was not packed and I could get my nose right up to the glass to look at the speech. It's amazing how so few words (it covered about 2.5 pages of lined notebook paper--paper that looked exactly the same as lined paper we use now) can reverberate so loudly and so clearly through history. Lincoln's handwriting was small and precise, and I imagined him sitting at his desk writing several copies of the speech. Did he have to concentrate absolutely on what he was writing, as I have to, to avoid mistakes, or could he allow his mind to wander to other matters of state or something more mundane? Did he write by the light coming from the sun shining in the windows, or was it night? Did he know the impact his words would have on generations to come? For that matter, do great men and women ever fully realize that they are great?

Ok, this post has gotten a bit off course.

It's strange what runs through your head when you get close to history. Just being that near to a copy of his speech was surprisingly moving. It's pretty much the only way we have to feel like we can communicate with the great people of our past.

In any event, the new museum is well laid out, and worth visiting. My only advice is to avoid the peak times; if I had had to wait in an hour line for each exhibit, I would have been disappointed by the small number of objects out. And take advantages of the lockers. You don't want to have to carry your coat all day, and they only cost 25 cents.

40 comments:

Caroline said...

Hey, i know what you mean -- i've been to the British Library twice, and both times have totally teared up. Pretty much no matter what's on display -- Lady Jane Grey's Bible, a first edition Shakespeare, the Magna Carta -- it always gets to me.

Oh, and the Gutenberg Bibles. There's one in the Library of Congress, and it's almost overwhelming to think what that book has meant to the world.

Dana Allen-Greil, National Museum of American History said...

I wanted to let you know that I featured your blog post on the National Museum of American History's own blog, "O Say Can You See?" Thanks for writing about your visit!

Alex said...

Dear Maggie,

What a great post on the National Museum of American History-- thanks so much for the mention! I thought that perhaps you might be interested in helping us spread the word about a really cool event that NMAH is launching-- a national Star-Spangled Banner YouTube Singing Contest!

Contestants can submit a video performance of the national anthem to the Star-Spangled Banner group on YouTube. The deadline for submissions is April 13, 2009.

It would be great if you could alert your readers to this exciting contest. Here's a link to the Call for Entries if you'd like to help spread the word:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/sing-the-national-anthem.aspx

Thanks!

Alex

Night Kitchen Interactive on behalf of the National Museum of American History

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