We took the metro into Washington DC having decided that the National Museum of American History would be a good choice of place to visit since the kids had done a Natural History Museum when we were in New York and because we are trying to provide them with an overview of US history and top up their general knowledge of American History. Disappointingly, however, it transpired when we picked up the map that half of the museum was closed. Literally half of each floor was unavailable. Perhaps we should have done our homework rather than relied on our own knowledge to select the venue for the day but still it was incredibly frustrating. I had last been there in 1995 but had remembered it as being really interesting and full of diverting exhibits and the kids were looking forward to it so we decided to plough on with the plan. The Museum has, as one might expect, had a major facelift since I last visited but sadly – like many literal facelifts – this one was not beneficial. It was a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Good section was that focusing on the Star Spangled Banner. When I had last visited, I had entered the main entrance and been greeted by the original Star Spangled Banner. It was an impressive site and an awesome welcome but from a conservation point of view it was clearly catastrophic. Therefore, in the intervening decades, it has been moved into an atmosphere and light controlled room and is displayed behind a vast glass panel. The corridor around the flag has been cleverly thought out in terms of the exhibits as it is themed on the national anthem, using Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” to tell the contextual story of the flag’s creation and significance. So there was a rocket – as in “rocket’s red glare” – and a bomb – as in “bursting in air” – showcased along with some other military items. There was also a display case of sewing items as might have been used to create the flag and biographical information about Mary Pickersgill who sewed the flag along with her daughter, two nieces and two African-American women.
The Bad was the Presidents’ section. The kids were really looking forward to it since they have become pretty obsessed with learning facts about various Presidents as my 7 year old did a school project about George Washington for President’s Day and my 8 year old had to do a research paper on a President of his choice. Since he loves to be obscure, he chose James Abram Garfield who actually turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine for a president who only lasted 200 days, most of those days being spent on his deathbed – yet not completely interesting either. The 8 year old is also a massive Lincoln fan and the 7 year old’s favourite is Teddy Roosevelt because he protected wildlife in the US while going around shooting it and also hunting animals in other people’s countries. My husband and sons are also related to two Presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – so that was another route to engagement in the whole history of the Presidency. The Presidents’ section should have been fascinating since it was filled with such wonderful items to showcase. However, it had been organised in such a way as to be a complete muddle. One might think it would be organised in terms of chronology, from Washington to Obama, or maybe even in terms of the President’s role if the curators were wanting to do something more avant garde. However, they had opted to organise it in such a way that it was just a hodge podge with no clear thread pulling visitors through the exhibits. It was like a pot luck supper as we wandered from one area to the next. We moved from a side section dedicated to Presidents who had been assassinated or died in office into a section about weddings at the White House, surely a strange and awkward juxtaposition by anyone’s standards. There was just no logic to it at all, as if the people curating it had a junkyard mentality.
The Ugly was the American Stories section. My understanding was that the items displayed had been chosen through ‘crowdsourcing’, by “the people” deciding by some unclear mechanism which exhibits best represented America. As much as inclusivity and democracy are wonderful ideals to aspire to, the whole section was evidence of the fact that not all curators are created equally as it ended up just a random “jumble sale” of bits and bobs with nothing properly telling any kind of story about America because there was simply no context, no structure and no apparent point. I was very excited to see Miss Piggy, Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, FDR’s microphone from his Fireside Chats and a life mask of Lincoln but I think anyone would be hard pressed to see a connection between any of them beyond their icon status, though that was a theme not supported by the inclusion of dozens of other items. Furthermore, none of the labelling supported the claim to be telling us stories about America or the American experience. I subsequently looked at the Museum’s website and read that the exhibits fell into five clusters representing eras in American history but that was not supported by either the layout or the labelling. The whole thing made by brain feel fidgety and, since the kids were becoming increasingly literally fidgety, we decided to depart from the museum.
We walked to Union Station past the sculpture garden of the National Art Gallery. I think the kids would have liked to have spent more time there but we were on our way to meet up with a friend at Union Station. That just added to the sense that we had wasted time in the Museum of American History. We dined at Thunder Grill. The food was delicious. I had a catfish sandwich with smoked tomato aoli and salsa which was succulent, full of strong but well-balanced flavours and very satisfying.