The story of the United States from birth to the present is a heck of a tale with many chapters, plot twists, characters and inventions. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s exhibits place objects within a cultural context, illuminating aspects of America’s heritage in entertainment, transportation, science, technology, sports, sociology and politics.
The museum’s size, like American history, is epic. Its three floors hold at least 40 separate exhibit spaces and display as many as 200,000 artifacts at any given time. That’s way too much to take in during one visit, so pick and choose.
The museum features powerful symbols of American ideals. Don’t miss seeing the original Star-Spangled Banner, the one sewn by Mary Pickersgill, flown over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor on September 14, 1814 during the War of 1812, and spotted by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to write the poem that eventually became the National Anthem.
Also on view are some of the best-loved icons of American culture as well as personal possessions of famous Americans. View Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog, Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers from the Wizard of Oz (temporarily removed for conservation) Apollo Ono’s speed skates from the 2002 Winter Olympics, as well as a Plymouth Rock fragment, Benjamin Franklin’s cane, Abraham Lincoln’s gold pocket watch and Julia Child’s kitchen.
The First Ladies exhibit showcases 160 artifacts and more than two dozen inaugural gowns belonging to wives of the U.S. President, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. The Price of Freedom: Americans at War reveals the role of war as a defining episode in American history, from colonial times to the present. America on the Move combines displays of such artifacts as the 1831 John Bull locomotive and the 1903 Winton automobile, the first car to traverse the United States, with text and activities.
Other showcased subjects cover Maritime History; American Enterprise (the evolution of the country’s economy from an agricultural base to an industrial base), Inventing in America, the American Presidency, and the Value of Money.
Live performances take place on a regular basis throughout the museum. You might see a historic re-enactment or a cooking demonstration or a video chat with farmers across the country. The museum also stages concerts and other after-hours events. American history is vast and inclusive, and this museum aims to pull you in.
Tips: Wegman’s Wonderplace is a hands-on space for little ones to six-year-olds. At the Draper Spark!Lab, ages 6 to 12 get hands-on inventing and creating. Tasks change. Draper Spark!Lab is open daily, except Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Metro: Smithsonian/National Mall (Jefferson Dr./Mall exit) or Federal Triangle on the Silver, Blue and Orange Lines. DC Circulator.