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Highlights of the National Museum of American History: A Washington D.C. Family Day Trip

Updated on October 27, 2014

The American History Museum: A Great Family Destination on the National Mall!

The National Museum of American History in the heart of Washington D.C. is one of those places that can really capture the attention of every member of the family, because it has such a wide range of exhibits. Where else can you see the First Ladies' inaugural gowns, early electric-powered cars, Catwoman's suit and the original Star-Spangled Banner?

Best of all, it's all free because the museum is part of the Smithsonian Institute. We spent the better part of a day at the museum over Presidents Day Weekend, and here are some of the highlights from our visit. The photos accompanying the text were taken by us.

American History Museum Judy Garland Slippers
American History Museum Judy Garland Slippers

Three Million Artifacts From Our Nation's History

Lou Gehrig, Joe Louis and Judy Garland

The museum contains more than 3 million pieces in its collection, with some on permanent display and others on rotation. So anytime you are in Washington you can visit the museum and see something new. That's what makes the place so fascinating: It's like going into the nation's attic and seeing what someone has stashed there since the last time you.visited.

On this trip, one of the temporary exhibits was called 1939, and highlighted the country's heroes -- real or imaginary -- from that year. There was an autographed baseball from New York Yankee player Lou Gehrig and Joe Louis' boxing gloves, alongside an original Charlie McCarthy doll and some early comic books.

A special treat were the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the movie ''The Wizard of Oz'' (see photo). Unfortunately, the shoes went off display a few days after our visit, according to the museum's website.

The exhibit is near the Dumbo car (see photo in the introduction above) on the third floor.

American History Museum Star Spangled Banner
American History Museum Star Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Highlight of the Collection

The highlight of the museum is the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that waved over Baltimore's Fort McHenry to signal that the Americans survived the battle in September, 1814. The flying of the flag inspired Francis Scott key to pen the words to America's anthem.

The flag is shown under dim light (no photos permitted), and it is huge: 30 feet by 34 feet. On the night it flew to signal the fort's survival, it was even larger: 30 feet by 42 feet! But parts had been stripped out by souvenir hunters early on. The flag was donated to the Smithsonian in 1907, after being held by the family of the fort's commander for almost a century.

It is truly inspiring, and if you visit the museum this is the one artifact that you really need to see.

p.s. You can find out more about the Star-Spangled Banner by visiting our review of Fort McHenry here.

American History Museum Price of Freedom
American History Museum Price of Freedom

The Price of Freedom

Americans at War

One of the largest exhibits, and one of the most sobering, is on the third floor. Called ''The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,'' the area traces the wars of the U.S. from the French and Indian War through the conflict in Iraq. World War II, Vietnam and the newer conflicts get the most space, but there are artifacts and details from almost every conflict.

And it is amazing the items that are on display. You will recognize George Washington's regiment coat from 1789, because that's the one he wore when sitting for portraits. And there's Andrew Jackson's uniform, sword and scabbard he wore during the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. And the sword Union General William Tecumsah Sherman carried in the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War.

Most significant are the actual chairs that Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee sat in on the day they met to arrange the surrender of Lee's army, effectively ending the Civil War.

I did have two criticisms of the exhibit. First, World War I was accorded very little space for such a significant world event. Second, the Vietnam display focused much more on the political controversy back home than on the war, so it was hard to really understand the conflict's timeline.

My 10-year-old son found this part of the museum very enlightening, and spent a long time asking his mother questions about the wars and why they were fought.

American History Museum Thomas Edison
American History Museum Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and the Invention of the Light Bulb

Lighting a Revolution Exhibit

One ongoing exhibition is called ''Lighting a Revolution,'' and it focuses on the invention of the practical electrical light bulb. The exhibit starts with a display early electric meters, motors, generators and electromagnets, then shows how Thomas Edison revolutionized the field by inventing his bulb, lighting New York City's Pearl Street and promoting electrical illumination around the world.

The displays include a bulb from a public demonstration during Christmas week 1879 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where Edison had his laboratory at the time. That location is why he was known as the ``Wizard of Menlo Park,'' of course, and the exhibit has a blown-up cartoon of Edison in wizard's garb from the New York Graphic 1877 (see photo).

The exhibit goes on to show how increased competition embroiled Edison in numerous lawsuits but also spawned many electrical appliances we take for granted today.

This is a very well-done explanation of the invention of the light bulb and I would suggest that it is a must-see when visiting the museum.

Thomas Edison's Laboratory and Home

A Great National Historic Site in New Jersey

While Thomas Edison was known as ''The Wizard of Menlo Park,'' he actually spent most of his career at a laboratory north of Menlo Park in West Orange, New Jersey. The West Orange facility and Edison's nearby mansion are preserved and open to visitors.

Run by the National Park Service, the two places collectively are known as the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. One ticket grants entrance to both places. We have been there several times and it is a really fascinating visit.

You can read more about Edison's laboratory and home in this two lenses.

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American History Museum Philadelphia Gunboat
American History Museum Philadelphia Gunboat

The Philadelphia Gunboat

From the Battle of Valcour Island

On the second floor of the museum is an actual gunboat from the U.S. Revolutionary War. The boat, called the U.S.S. Philadelphia, was sunk in the Battle of Valcour Island on Oct. 11, 1776.

In that battle on Lake Champlain, New York, the Americans were trying to prevent the British from reaching the upper Hudson Bay. It was an American defeat, but the British were successfully delayed. Leading the Americans was Benedict Arnold, who would later turn traitor.

The boat was recovered in 1935, and presented to the museum in 1965. It is amazing to look at the hole where the British shot hit, sinking the ship, and to know that this was in actual battle almost 250 years ago.

A Sampling of the Museum's Artifacts

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Champagne bucket from the Paris flashback scene in the movie ''Casablanca.''The motor of an early 1900s electric-powered car.Daniel Radcliffe's costume from the movie ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.''1831 John Bull locomotive imported from England1966 ''Phaser'' from the television series ''Star Trek.''
The Champagne bucket from the Paris flashback scene in the movie ''Casablanca.''
The Champagne bucket from the Paris flashback scene in the movie ''Casablanca.''
The motor of an early 1900s electric-powered car.
The motor of an early 1900s electric-powered car.
Daniel Radcliffe's costume from the movie ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.''
Daniel Radcliffe's costume from the movie ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.''
1831 John Bull locomotive imported from England
1831 John Bull locomotive imported from England
1966 ''Phaser'' from the television series ''Star Trek.''
1966 ''Phaser'' from the television series ''Star Trek.''

For More Information

Here is the official website of the museum.

Have You Toured the Museum of American History?

American History Museum Route 66
American History Museum Route 66

My family and I really enjoyed our visit to the Museum of American History. Have you ever visited the museum, or do you plan to? If yes, what did you think? If no, why not?

Have you ever been to the Museum of American History?

See results

Book Your Room Today

We have used to book our recent vacations, and haven't had a problem yet. You do have to spend a bit of time reading the reviews to make sure the hotel you select is exactly what you want, of course. Sometimes a good price just means that the hotel has had a lot of poor reviews and has dropped what it charges to attract customers!

One other bit of good news is that you get a free night's stay after booking 10 nights. The freebie has to be on a subsequent trip, but it has helped us save money. Check out today:

New Director for the Museum!

The museum recently announced a new director. Here are the details of his appointment.

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The National Gallery of Art and National Zoo Also!

This review is part of a series we have written about our trip to Washington D.C. Here are some of the other places we visited during our vacation in the capital.

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Museum of American History on eBay!

We have found that we end up with things around the house that are perfectly good but that we have no reason to keep. So we have turned to eBay to offer these items up for bid in the hope that someone else will find them useful.

Please check them out, and bid if you'd like.


Of Comic Books and Family Vacations

About Goldenrulecomics

For more about who we are and what we have reviewed please see here:

Of Comic Books and Family Vacations: Who is GoldenRuleComics?
Who is GoldenRuleComics? Actually, the better question is who ARE GoldenRuleComics! I am the father of a teenage daughter, and we live in New Jersey. I hand...

I hope you enjoyed this lens as much as we enjoyed visiting the museum. Please share your thoughts on the museum, Washington DC, this lens or anything else that's relevant.

Thanks for visiting!


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