The Smithsonian National Museum of American History tackles the monumental task of displaying and preserving the most important pieces of American history and culture since this country’s birth. Here are some tips to make your visit to the National Museum of American History more enjoyable.
After visiting the museum, why not explore American history in person with one of our National Mall tours? They start just 5 minutes away!
The American History Museum is located on the National Mall at Constitution Ave and 14th St NW. The closest metro stop is Federal Triangle, which has the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines. After exiting the metro, take a right down 12th St NW, cross Constitution Ave NW, then walk to the right until you reach the entrance located on Constitution Ave, between 12th and 14th St NW. There is also an entrance on the Madison Dr NW side of the building, but generally the Constitution Ave entrance has a shorter line.
Parking Near the National Museum of American History
Street parking is very limited in the area, and it is a popular site to visit, so be sure to budget some time to find a spot. There are free parking spaces open to the public along Jefferson and Madison Dr, but the competition for these is fierce. A lot of the on-street parking is limited to 2 or 3 hours, so check nearby signs before you leave your vehicle.
The National Museum of American History has partnered with SpotHero to help visitors easily find and reserve parking spots in the area. Use their website to view all of the available parking facilities and find cheap deals!
Like all Smithsonian Institutions, it is free and unticketed to visit the American History Museum. This is both good and bad, good because you get access to one of the top museums in the country free of charge, but bad because there’s no way to guarantee an entrance time and the museum will often get crowded in the Spring and Summer. If you’re visiting in the busy season, it’s best to get there around 10am when the museum opens.
The museum does have a light security check at all entrances. Visitors are required to walk through a metal detector, and have their bags manually checked by a security guard. There are no weapons or sharp objects, such as scissors allowed inside. You also may not use a tripod or a selfie-stick in the museum. While you can bring outside food or drink into the museum, there are no places inside where you are allowed to eat or drink it. There are two cafes where you can buy a snack or coffee. Once inside, there are a limited number of lockers that you can store things in if you wish at no charge.
This museum is large enough that it would probably take weeks to thoroughly visit all of the exhibitions. For this reason, we suggest that you pick a few exhibitions that interest you (our favorites are below!) and set out to visit those first. It’s a good idea to plan on spending at least an hour in the museum.
Highlights of the American History Museum
Since this museum tries to cover all American History and culture, many guests can feel overwhelmed when deciding which exhibitions to visit. Luckily, for this same reason, there really is something to interest everyone in the museum. Here is a full list of exhibitions (http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions), and we’ve listed some of our favorites below.
Please note that the museum does sometimes close exhibitions or remove objections for preservation work.
The Star-Spangled Banner
One of the greatest treasures in the museum, and arguably in the country, is the original Star-Spangled Banner. The flag is 30 feet tall and 34 feet long, and was commissioned for Fort McHenry from Baltimore flagmaker Mary Young Pickersgill. The 15 star, 15 stripe flag inspired Francis Scott Key, who watched the Battle of Fort McHenry from an enemy ship in the bay, to write a poem he originally called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Later it was set to the tune of a British song and became our national anthem.
The flag is housed in a special climate controlled display case, and surrounded by an exhibition with more details on the Battle of Fort McHenry and the flag’s creation. It is located in the center of the second floor.
The First Ladies
This exhibition explores the different contributions that America’s First Ladies have made to their country over the years. Although they were seen as merely accessories to the President in the past, First Ladies have changed the country in ways both small and profound. There is also an incredible collection of more than 25 gowns worn by First Ladies spanning over 100 years.
It is located in the center of the third floor.
Full of objects that often appear ordinary at first glance, this exhibition spans American history from the arrival of the pilgrims in 1620 (commemorated by a fragment of Plymouth Rock) all the way to the present day. The most popular objects by far are Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
This collection is in the east of the second floor.
Through the African American Lens
This is a teaser for the next Smithsonian, the Museum of African American History and Culture. It rotates through different exhibitions which discuss everything from slavery, to the funk music that so defined African-American culture. Please note that when the main museum opens in September of 2016, this exhibition will likely be retired.
It is on the east side of the second floor.
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