An “official” student tour of our Nation’s Capital has to include at least one Smithsonian museum. Standard itineraries feature the National Museum of American History, National Air and Space Museum and other great repositories on the National Mall.
But student groups can shake up their itineraries by including D.C. museums that don’t appear on everyone’s radar screens. Here are just five of Washington’s “other” museums:
Media junkies and anyone who follows current events will have a field day immersing themselves in exhibits documenting the world’s greatest news stories. Visitors learn about the First Amendment, go behind the scenes of news operations and often see live newcasts taking place. In the interactive newsroom they can play the role of a TV reporter or photographer. Situated on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, half way between the Capitol and White House, the glass-and-silver building offers 14 galleries and 15 theaters on seven levels.
More than 700 newspapers transmit their front pages electronically to the Newseum every day. Up to 80 are enlarged and printed for display in the Today’s Front Pages Gallery—one from every state and a sampling of international newspapers as well. Additional front pages are displayed outside. Other Newseum must-sees include the 9/11 Gallery, which explores the horrendous events of Sept. 11 and the challenges journalists faced in chronicling the attack on America. Also view the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs ever assembled and sections of the Berlin Wall, the largest unaltered display of the wall outside of Germany. (888-639-7386)
International Spy Museum
Indulge your inner James Bond as you examine the world’s largest collection of spy artifacts. Anyone intrigued by gadgetry will marvel at the espionage toys used by the CIA, FBI and KGB. Items include a wristwatch camera, lipstick pistol, invisible ink, bugs of all kinds and ingenious disguise techniques developed by Hollywood for the CIA. Follow the history of spying from biblical times to the Cold War and even learn about celebrity spies like singer Josephine Baker, chef Julia Child and actress Marlene Dietrich.
Besides perusing museum exhibits, visitors can play a U.S. intelligence officer in Operation Spy, a one-hour experiential adventure where they have to locate a missing nuclear trigger before it ends up in the wrong hands. It involves cracking a few safes, decoding some messages, conducting video surveillance of a clandestine meeting and interrogating a suspect double agent. Located four blocks from the National Mall, the Spy Museum is especially popular with student groups. (202-393-7798, www.spymuseum.org)
National Museum of Crime and Punishment
A state-of-the-art attraction that opened in 2008, this must for “CSI” fans traces the history of crime in America, from pirates and Wild West outlaws to white-collar criminals. On display are such ultimate implements of punishment as an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection machine, guillotine and medieval torture chamber. In a full-scale model police station, see a booking room, lie detector test and replica jail cell.
Highly interactive, the museum invites visitors to test their Wild West shooting skills, crack a safe and try to hack a computer. There’s a high-speed car chase simulator and FBI shooting range. In “Body of Evidence,” visit the morgue and discovers the wonders of an autopsy. “CSI Experience” shows how to solve a crime through forensic science technology. “Crime & the Media” illustrates how news reporting, television and movies mirror America’s obsession with crime.
Guests also can see the filming studio for “America’s Most Wanted,” the TV show hosted by John Walsh; behind-the-scenes studio tours explain his involvement in the museum and the family tragedy that led him to become one of America’s top crime fighters. (202-621-5550, www.crimemuseum.org)
The Presidents Gallery is the only place where you can view all U.S presidents’ likenesses in 3D. From George Washington crossing the Delaware to Barack Obama in the Oval Office, the life-size wax figures appear in 14 themed areas where visitors are encouraged to touch, take photos and participate in computer games and other activities that make American history come alive.
In the gallery’s Founding Fathers room, test your knowledge of American history using a touch-screen quiz. Or sit at a table with John Adams as he prepares the Declaration of Independence with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson watching over you. In the Civil War section sit alongside Abraham Lincoln in a recreation of the Ford’s Theatre box the moment before his assassination.
Guests can pose with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin holding the American flag on the moon, uncover the full story of Watergate using a touch-screen interactive and stand next to Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall. The Hope 9/11 room recalls the horrific and heroic events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.
Visitors to Madame Tussauds also mingle with Hollywood celebrities, from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to Jennifer Lopez and the Jonas Brothers. The newest figure depicts Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. (866-823-9569, www.madametussauds.com/washington)
Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens
Set on 25 acres in a peaceful residential neighborhood in northwest Washington, Hillwood is the former home of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriwether Post (1887-1973), a socialite who entertained presidents, diplomats and royalty at her 40-room Georgian mansion. She also was an avid art collector. The purchases she made while living in the Soviet Union when Joseph E. Davies, the third of her four husbands, was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1937-38) formed the nucleus of the most important assemblage of Russian imperial art outside Russia today. Pieces range from fine porcelain to Russian Orthodox icons and jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs.
Hillwood also features a large collection of French decorative arts and a sumptuously appointed Louis XVI drawing room. In addition to the mansion, groups can explore Hillwood’s formal gardens and greenhouse. Lunch and tea menus are available at Hillwood Cafe. A 15-minute film discusses the estate and the life of the heiress. (202-686-8500, www.hillwoodmuseum.org)
–by Randy Mink