Museums are part of the commons, our cultural and scientific storehouses and thus in a free and democratic society they should be open to all. If it where up to me the only charge at the door would be a suggested donation for those who feel blessed enough to spare it. Nowhere is this ideal better displayed than in the capitol of the United States, Washington DC. The collection of museums gathered under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, 19 museums plus the National Zoo are all free to the public. There is probably no place on earth a museum junkie can get more bang for their buck than the District of Columbia.
We’ve been lucky enough to be able to make a pair of weekend trips to DC the last couple of years, most recently Spring Break 2014. Even with a long weekend to work with we barely scratched the surface of what you can see or do there.
The National Museum of Natural History: On the family’s first trip to DC in 2011 we stopped for a two day visit on our way to meet The Girl’s family on the Outer Banks. Since this was a hit and run visit we devoted an entire day to the Zoo and a day for walking the Mall and hitting museums. Unfortunately the latter day was a Saturday in the first weekend of August. It was a MILLION degrees outside, the museum was PACKED and CROWDED. We made the best of it before beating a hasty retreat to less sweaty climes.
What we did see was pretty darn cool however. The David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, just opened in 2010, was a spectacular display of the evolution of our species from slightly upright ape to tool using hunter gatherer to iPhone wielding tourist. Lifelike reproductions of what our ancestors may have looked like are displayed along with casts of skulls from around the world. The Sant Ocean Hall holds the museums famous replica of 45-foot-long North Atlantic Right Whale named Phoenix, who has been tracked by scientists since her birth in 1987. The National Fossil Hall is currently closed for renovation, but we were lucky enough to see an impressive collection of dinosaurs when we visited. And of course there is the famous Hope Diamond on display, making the mineral room the most crowded place in the building as people line up to ogle a shiny lump of carbon. There are Hands on Experiences throughout the museum, which is nice to keep the younger kids attention.
Upsides: Lots to see, I’d set aside most of a day, or perhaps make two trips with a break for little ones to grab fresh air in between. As museums go it’s an amazing place, but kids used to modern children’s museums might find it a little light on buttons to push and things that light up. Like everything on the Mall, be prepared for a lot of walking. On the plus side DC has an excellent Metro public transit service. Don’t drive unless you absolutely have to.
Downsides: Almost too much to see! It’s mostly a looking and reading museum so it might bore the pre-school crowd a bit. The Hellions had a blast however. Can’t wait to go again.
The National Air and Space Museum: The Air and Space Museum shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of it’s sister museum. The building is filled to the brim with artifacts; moon landers, famous airplanes, rockets, a mock up of Skylab, moon rocks and other stuff that is fun to look at. The various sections are full of lots of informative signs to read. But the entire affair can come off as crowded and boring for the younger kids because almost everything says “Don’t Touch”.
Upsides: Lots of famous stuff to look at. A modern 3d IMAX was fun.
Downsides: Not great for little kids. The whole place looks and feels a little dated, with some wear and tear on a few exhibits and a generally old fashioned feel to the place.
The National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center: Located on the outskirts of Reagan National Airport, the Udvar-Hazy Center will require a drive and a parking fee, but it is absolutely worth it. Packed into an actual airport hangar and terminal, the Center takes what the downtown A&S Museum does well, collect artifacts, and dials it up to 11. With plenty of room for display the Center hosts hundreds of vehicles, such as the B29 Superfortress “The Enola Gay”, an SR-71 Blackbird, one of the Concordes and the Space Shuttle Discovery, as well as many smaller planes. The scale of the place is breathtaking. Once again everything is “No Touch”, but the scope of the building made up for it.
Downsides: Gotta drive and pay to park.
Now three museums is just scratching the surface of what DC has to offer of course. It’s a world capitol with all the associated government buildings to check out. There are giant statues of famous people everywhere. Most Americans east of the Mississippi can probably make it a driving vacation, we can make it in one day of driving from Cincinnati. We’ll be doing it as often as we can.
For more pictures from the featured museums, plus images from The National Gallery (sooo many Monet’s), The National Gallery Sculpture Garden, The National Zoo, The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, check out my Washington Trip Flickr Gallery.
Correction: As alert reader and DC resident djunger points out, the Udvar-Hazy Center is near Dulles Airport, not Reagan National. So never depend on me for directions… EVER!
Featured Image Credit: Blotz Photo Arts.