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The National Museum of American History: George Washington as a Roman Emperor
Among its many other sites, Washington D.C. boasts the largest museum complex anywhere in the world. The Smithsonian Institution was first founded in 1846 with $500,00 bequeathed by British scientist James Smithson (who, by the way, never set foot in the United States) "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Today, the complex consists of 16 museums plus the National Zoo, more than 141 million artifacts, and completely free admission. In order to prevent complete burnout, we concentrated our time on the three museums that interested us the most.
On June 21st, we took the metro from Foggy Bottom/GWU to L'Enfant Plaza and walked to the National Air and Space Museum, the largest of the Smithsonian museums. Here, half of the building is devoted to aviation and airplanes, while the other half is devoted to the exploration of outer space. Our first stop -- at the request of Joss and Cameron -- was "At the Controls," which included a MaxFlight airplane simulator (think of a gigantic video game where you sit inside of a capsule that rocks back and forth). We separated into two pairs (Russell with Cameron and Gail with Joss) and had a lot of fun with each "pilot" steering the plane while each "gunner" shot at various targets. Joss immediately wanted to do it again, but there were too many other things to see.
Next we visited the "How Things Fly" gallery, where more than 50 interactive stations demonstrate principles of flight. Cameron and Joss very much enjoyed the hands-on activities that showed everything from the effects of gravity to an airplane's movements of pitch, roll, and yaw. They also participated in a paper airplane workshop, where both of their planes made it to the "finals" in the contest.
The National Air and Space Museum:
"Gunner" Joss and "Pilot" mom emerge from the flight simulator
Cameron takes his best shot in the paper airplane competition
In the outer space half of the museum, we saw actual capsules from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs that resulted in men walking on the moon. We saw successful and unsuccessful attempts at building a space suit, as well as an 1800s newspaper hoax that convinced people that Mars was inhabited by bat-like people. In the IMAX theatre, we saw a wonderful 3D movie on the "Space Station" that had us all wanting to grow up to be astronauts.
The National Air and Space Museum: viewing Apollo's Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)
The National Air and Space Museum recently renovated its cafeteria, and the result is the largest McDonald's restaurant in the world. In this amazing assembly line of a fast-food restaurant, one person takes your order for either McDonald's, Donato's pizza, or Boston Market chicken; a second person takes your money; and a third person gives you your food. It was the most efficient thing we'd ever seen.
We tried to go to our second museum --the National Museum of Natural History -- that same afternoon, but it was closing early at 5:30 PM for a private function. We settled for watching another 3D IMAX movie -- "T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous" -- that was not nearly as good as the first (and actually rather confusing) before we called it a day. (We actually had tickets to the 6:45 PM showing, and our request to convert them to the 4:45 PM showing clearly challenged the brains and systems of the theatre staff.) All told, we were out for more than eight hours that day.
But we were back at the Museum of Natural History again on June 23rd (after Joss slept in until past 9:00 AM, giving us a chance to watch the US lose to Germany 0-1 in the World Cup on television), and we spent a good five hours there. In addition to the largest elephant exhibit in the world (years ago, an explorer saw the huge elephant in Western Africa, and specifically returned a year later with a huge rifle to shoot it), the museum has a great Dinosaur Hall with full-sized skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and many other huge creatures. In "Life in the Ancient Seas," we saw a very well laid-out timeline of prehistoric life in the oceans; in "Ice Age Mammals" we saw giant sloth and mastodons. And upstairs in the Insect Zoo, we saw fascinating live bugs and spiders. In the shop, Joss used his own money to buy himself a candy bar.
The National Museum of Natural History: learning about "Life in the Ancient Seas"
With an extra open day on June 24th, we went to our third museum, the National Museum of American History. (We were originally only going to visit the first two museums, but we decided after a week in D.C. that we hadn't yet learned enough about our own country's history.) The highlight here was the new exhibit on "The American Presidency, a Glorious Burden," which provided an overview of life in the White House, including how presidential children lived there. Unfortunately, this exhibit took up much of the space that used to be devoted to the "Popular Culture" exhibit. As a result, there was not much left of America's ephemera, and aside from Mr. Spock's phaser and Indiana Jones' jacket, there wasn't a lot of popular culture to see. We were also disappointed in the "Within These Walls" exhibit; this showcase of five families over 200 years was not nearly as good as similar exhibits in Europe. As well, the original Star Spangled Banner from Fort McHenry was currently down for renovation.
But the walk-through exhibit on the Information Age was very entertaining, especially because we come from high-tech Silicon Valley. Here we saw the evolution of computers from room-sized to desktop-sized, and the evolution of the floppy disk from 12" to 10" to 5.25" to 3.5". We also saw a good-as-new HP calculator featured in a glass case.
The National Museum of American History: studying the evolution of the desktop computer
All told, we gave ourselves a very good, non-stressed overview of our country and its history from these three museums; and as much as possible we tried to relate what we saw here to the many other museums and attractions we had seen around the world. Cameron was particularly pleased that much of what he saw enhanced his previous reading of his "Horrible Histories" USA book.
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