Visiting Washington D.C. | Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, including 19 museums and galleries plus the National Zoological Park. We visited two of them when we visited Washington D.C. earlier this month — the Museum of American History and the Museum of Natural History.

We spent three days in D.C., and we left with still so much we didn’t see and do. We could have easily spent a week there, if our kids were older and if it weren’t so crowded.

We started off Day 2 at the Museum of American History. This museum houses national treasures such as the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, Jefferson’s lap desk, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. You can download a floor plan and tackle this museum with a plan, and I’d advise that you do so if there are specific things you want to see. As I said in the first post in this series, our Washington D.C. trip was sadly lacking in the planning and strategizing department, and unfortunately that caused me to miss a few exhibits I really wanted to see, such as Julia Child’s kitchen.

We arrived at the Museum of American History right when it opened at 10AM so we were able to enjoy it for about an hour before it became so mobbed that it was hard to keep track of the kids while reading the exhibits.

Here we are, (or at least some of us) all excited about the day ahead.

By lunchtime, this is what it looked like. Actually, that photo was taken at the Museum of Natural History, which is the second museum we explored on our trip.

But back to the American History Museum. For some reason, we decided to start on the second floor, and we found ourselves in the exhibit called Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, which runs from January 27 to October 14 of this year. None of this was necessarily news to me; I know of Jefferson’s exploits, but reading the stories of his slaves and how they were split up when he died was disturbing. I realize that our nation’s forefathers were only as human as the rest of us, but it’s a bit disheartening to read about some of the specifics of their lives. I guess I always held them to a higher standard, which is always a dangerous thing to do.

It was interesting to see my 12-year-old son try to reconcile the facts he was reading and seeing with the man he had learned about at school. He was quite taken aback by some of what he learned in that exhibit, especially when he saw the Bible that Jefferson cut apart and the new version that he created — The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He kept saying, “he was still a good man, but . . . ” and he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around how this great historical figure could be so misguided. It was a good lesson for him, I suppose, but I hated to see his innocence crushed.

My favorite section in the Museum of American History was the American Wars and Politics. That was fascinating, and I tried to read every placard. I could have spent longer in there, but the kids were tugging me along. My 12-year-old stayed pretty engaged for most of it, but the girls were way out of their element.

And yet, my nine-year-old got a kick out of trying on this helmet.

While we spent the most time in the Wars and Politics section, I insisted on making the rounds of the First Ladies’ Dresses before I let my family drag me off to the next museum.

My 6-year-old loved that room. She led me around by the hand and wanted to know who wore every single dress. She’ll tell you that her favorite was Mrs. Lincoln’s. She kept asking about President Lincoln and seemed particularly enamored with him. I think she recently learned about him in school.

Now there is a man who I’m proud to say was one of our forefathers. A humble and godly man was he — quite the contrast to Jefferson, or so it seems. We thoroughly enjoyed the Lincoln Memorial too, but you’ll have to stay tuned for the next post to hear about that!

After we had our fill of the American History Museum, we moseyed on over to the Museum of Natural History. They are right next door to each other, but everything in Washington D.C. is farther away than you think it should be, so it was a bit of a walk. We stopped along the way to eat lunch (*cough* street vendor *cough*) and when we got there, it was already quite crowded — so crowded that I had a hard time enjoying any of it.

The kids wanted to see the dinosaurs, of course, but we got sidetracked by the evolving universe and such. My 9-year-old was enthralled by those exhibits, but it was hard for me to swallow.

And here is where I alienate half of my readership, but it’s my blog so I’ll say what I think.

As a Christian who is not necessarily convinced that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days, but is thoroughly convinced that humans are intelligent, created beings that did not evolve from apes, I was turned off by all the blatant evolutionary theory. Not that I expected anything else, but I also hadn’t thought much about it beforehand, and it caught me a bit off guard. Suffice it to say, I did not enjoy this museum much at all.

Maybe I was just tired and grumpy and needed some fresh air.

And did I mention how painful my knee and hand were from my fall the day before and all the walking we were doing on top of that?

So yeah, by this time I was just ready to click my heels together three times and find myself magically transported to my plush hotel room.

But alas. That was not to be.

We did get some fresh air, though. By about 3:00, we had all had enough. It was really hard to get near the popular exhibits, and I was terrified I was going to lose one of the kids. We were all frustrated with the crowds so we finally just left and spent some time outside enjoying the lawn.

It was so nice to soak in the sunshine and feel the fresh spring breeze. We debated doing a few more things, but I was in a lot of pain, so we hoofed it back to the Metro and took the train back to our hotel to rest a bit before dinner.

We didn’t get a chance to explore any of the other museums or the zoo on this trip. We all really wanted to make it to the National Zoo, but there just wasn’t time.

My advice to families traveling to D.C. with small children and hoping to do the museums is two-fold.

  1. Plan well, so you see what you want to see and don’t get stuck in areas you really don’t care for.
  2. Try to go when it’s not so crowded.

It was beautiful with the tulips and cherry blossoms in bloom, but I think I’d trade some of that beauty for lighter crowds. It depends on what you want to do, I guess. I think I’d like to come back in the off-season to do more of the museums. And if I want to do the monuments and memorials and the zoo, I’d opt to come when it’s pretty outside.

All in all, it was a positive experience. I’d love to go back and take a whole day in the American History Museum. That’s totally up my alley, but I definitely recommend taking kids no younger than 10. My girls weren’t very interested. They did, however, enjoy the Natural History Museum, as much as they could with the crowds. That one seems better suited to younger kids.

For more about our trip, see all my Visiting Washington D.C. posts! There are still more to come.