Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Family field trip!

This past weekend I was able to make one of those impromptu trips home that my parents had been hoping would happen now that I'm within driving distance again. I was just in time for a family trip to the newly remodeled National Museum of American History. Besides Air and Space, this was always my favorite Smithsonian museum. When I was 5, I took home a First Ladies' gowns coloring book. It was a little frustrating since a good 25% of them were something impossible like white, cream, or "bombazine," but I loved it. I made my Mom read me the catalog entries a dozen times.

Here are my opinions of the new, somewhat improved NMAH.
Good Things
  • Overall, the building is brighter and easier to navigate. I was surprised, though, at how little had changed in the overall floorplan.
  • Vastly improved Star Spangled Banner display keeps the flag safe, but still looks cool. The walk-through exhibits about Fort McHenry and the flag's conservation were also good.
  • The extensive "America at War" exhibit was patriotic but not jingoistic. There was plenty to see and touch. My brothers spent a good hour there, not surprisingly.
  • The transportation section was greatly improved. I especially liked how they used turn-of-the-century DC as a case study for emerging interstate markets and transport.
  • "Within These Walls," a 200 year study of a house in Ipswich, MA. They managed to fit in abolition, Irish immigrants, and the WWII homefront, along with a healthy dose of architecture. I was able to identify Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs in the Colonial section!
Not-s0-good things.
  • Lines for the "pop" exhibits. What is this, Disney World? Lots of people want to see the ruby slippers and First Lady dresses. Why are they then in a cramped space with a narrow entrance? I was pleased to learn that the single First Ladies' room is only temporary, though.
  • Restroom entrances are also preposterously narrow. What would someone do with a stroller if there was a line backed up to the door?
  • My brothers reported that the invention section was mostly hand-wringing about the dangers of the nuclear age.
  • Julia Child's kitchen was fun, albeit a little fluffy. It's indicative of our culture that everyone ended up just staring at the video clips of her show.
Overall, the exhibits tried to suit their "national" role, painting broad pictures of major historical trends. I'll be curious to see what other innovations arrive in coming months.

My favorite moment was walking through the 20th century war section. Each "generation" of my family related to something different. We all chuckled at the kitchy WWII war bond cartoons and posters. Then we arrived at Vietnam, which Dad could of course remember. We gathered around the plastic-wrapped avocado sofa to watch sobering news clips of Saigon. Then on to chunks of the Berlin Wall, which is one of my earliest news footage memories. I did a double take when a teeanger said, "Mom, what's the Berlin Wall?" My middle brother and sister were most fascinated by the twisted hunks of metal from the World Trade Center. Brother #3 didn't linger there; he was still in diapers when terrorists attacked it. What memories will he associate with war?

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