In Washington I visited four of the Smithsonian museums – Air and Space, American History, American Indian and Natural History. I also visited the Library of Congress. Despite the dreary weather there were a lot of people spending the day visiting the Museums, many were families as it was around Easter time and schools’ Spring break. There was a real sense of a great family outing happening. Lots of the visitors seemed to be American, and many from the nearby area. I think partly because they were free, there was a sense of ownership and shared family learning that isn’t always present in Museums. The museums did little in the way of ‘selling’, rather they let the exhibitions speak for themselves.
Air and Space Museum
The items in the Air and Space Museum really spoke for themselves. Seeing actual spaceship interiors and astronaut gear was exciting, and not just for the numerous kids around me, I found it really engaging. They museum selected exhibits to appeal to the general public, including a number of artefacts and models for space toileting! There were also a number of great hands-on sections, including experiments to explain the science of flight and, a fun and question provoking activity to make your own section of the international space station. However, my favourite section was actually a static and more traditional style exhibition of space photography. Perhaps it was the quietness (less kids!), or just the awe-inspiring quality of the photographs. But either way, it was good to have a exhibitions in a range of different styles to suit different tastes and interests.
American History Museum
The American History Museum was exceptionally busy and crowded, but there were a lot of great things to see. The First Ladies exhibition was very interesting and had expanded over time from an exhibition predominately about clothing, to one covering many facets of the life of a First Lady. I particularly liked the way this exhibition had a ‘Top things to see if you are short on time’ brochure. It was a great way to help avoid visitors being overwhelmed by the collection and recognise that some may only want a short visit. It also had a couple of great interactive spaces designed mainly for children: particularly ‘Spark’ where there was a fantastic atmosphere of family learning and discovery.
I also liked some of the simpler interactive displays. In the 19th century exhibit there was a bucket you could lift to get an idea of the weight. I know lots of museums have similar displays (including the Gold Museum), and I think they are very powerful tools for children to grasp concepts and be able to compare the past to their own lives. There are many ‘ah-ha’ moments at a display such as this as it allows children to put arbitrary figures into concrete understandings.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum was also very crowded, but the exhibitions were a bit more spacious and so there weren’t really any bottlenecks or ques. The museum had a huge variety of exhibitions and it was very hard to see it all! There were hand-on sections, particularly for kids, to try out concepts covered in the exhibits. They were also beginning to make use of mobile technology with a fun little App for the human history exhibit where you could take a picture of yourself and transform it into an ancient human-like species. Good fun, but it was a shame it didn’t extend it further into a story about your daily life or something similar. I did also particularly enjoy an interactive in the same exhibit where you had to attempt to govern a new civilization based on choices you make in given scenarios. Your choices altered your levels of wealth, health, environmental health, social harmony etc. It was very effective at making me think about the consequences of choices I was making and made me really consider my priorities. Not only that, I think it would make visitors consider human society as complex and interconnected, about how we have evolved and the choices we have already made as a species.
Museum of the American Indian
The Museum of the American Indian was quieter than other museums, but it suited the more reflective nature of the exhibits. The spaces seem more fluid and their were little nooks that allowed for quiet reflection. The exhibits covered artefacts, culture, historical and contemporary issues. The issues were very thoughtfully presented and encouraged questioning and thought on behalf of the visitor. In particular, the section about what makes a native American and how has their native-ness been measured over time. By presenting it in a clear and straightforward way that naturally provoked internal questions about – what is fair, who should decide, and how would I feel? – it seemed easy to consider these complex issues with clarity and without negative confrontation.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress was a very impressive building that, aside from the somewhat unfriendly security check, was very accessible to visitors. It almost felt as though you were being invited into a space you weren’t meant to see, with long dark corridors and grand halls. The first place I discovered was the Young Readers Centre. It is an open space for children to play, read, relax and share books with their parents. It is quite out of the way of the main route through the building, which in some ways makes it more special, but it may be missed by some visitors. The centre had a great feel and had many positive messages about reading and family sharing.
The other feature of the LOC that I really liked was the Passport to Knowledge, linked to the MyLOC website. This little card passport allowed you to select information you were interested in from touch screen displays and bookmark it to your passport account so you could read it later. As simply as the idea of bookmarking is, I thought this was really great. There is so much information to take in, and this allows you to focus your interests and frees you from standing in front of an information panel and reading all the text. It would also be great for recalling information after your visit, which would work particularly well for students. The only thing that was disappointing about this, was that some of the staff discouraged their use. A couple told me ‘oh yes, we do have these passports, but you can just get all the information on the website, so there isn’t much point’. I think they are still worth promoting, I certainly enjoyed using them.