A Tale of Two Museum Visits

Having visited Washington, D.C. and its most classic sites several times in my life, I eagerly focused my recent visit on two newer museums – The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Newseum.

It was the Best of Museums

Making a Way Out of No Way

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is outstanding in its layout, visitor experience, and collections. Rather than spending time describing the NMAAHC, I’ll share some hints about how to make the most of your experience.

The museum is divided into the historical section on the lower levels and the cultural section on the upper levels. My friend and I chose where to start based on going the opposite direction of school groups, which worked out perfectly.

We started on L3 with the community galleries. The theme of these galleries is “Making a Way Out of No Way”, in other words, how African Americans built a life and community through service in the military, sports, and other paths.

1968 Olympics Black Power Salute

After grabbing lunch in the friendly Sweet Home Cafe, we visited the lower levels to explore African American history. The timeline begins with the African American experience of slavery and makes its way upward to the present, with explorations focused on historical events and politics. This section is emotionally and mentally exhausting while being educational and inspiring. Take your time and find new information rather than focusing on the events you have already studied.

George Clinton’s Mothership in the Music Gallery

We wrapped up our visit on L4 in the Cultural Galleries, which include familiar and exciting exhibits about the theater, film and television, music, and the visual arts. Saving these galleries for the end of the day was a fun and light way to fight off “museum feet” and an aching back.

How to visit:

The NMAAHC is a Smithsonian museum and, therefore, free to visit. But, unlike other Smithsonian museums, you need a timed entry pass to enter because of the popularity of this new museum, which opened in September 2016.

The most certain and planful way to secure a pass is to check the website and be prepared to book a ticket three months in advance. The trick to getting your pass is similar to booking a campsite at a popular campground – know when the booking window will open and then grab passes online first thing that morning (as of this writing the NMAAHC says they make passes available on the first Wednesday of the month – for passes three months from that date!)

Hint: If you have a choice, get a pass for as early in the day as possible. You’ll want to have plenty of time in the museum.

If you are unable to get a pass ahead of time, you can check online at 6:30 a.m. eastern time for the availability of same-day passes. There is no guarantee, but it’s worth a try.

As a last resort, on a weekday you can go to the museum  starting at 1:00 p.m. and see if they have walk-up passes available. While this option is on the museum’s website, a staff member told me that this often works if it’s just for one or two people. Apparently some advance pass holders don’t show up, so their passes are made available to walk-up visitors after the lunch hour.

Although I didn’t plan my trip until a month before my visit, I was lucky enough to secure a pass (it helps to know the right people). Humbly and gratefully, I was able to spend an entire day at the museum thanks to the generosity of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Know before you go:

Along with securing a ticket, before you go to the NMAAHC, spend some time exploring their website. Get a feel for the collections, the layout of the museum, and even the Sweet Home Cafe’s offerings. Make sure you check the events page to see if there is anything happening while you are there. If you want to get a preview of what you’ll see at the museum, go to the collections webpage, scroll to the bottom and click “on view”. Don’t spend too much time on the webpage though – just enough to get excited. You don’t want to spoil the experience!

Another way to prepare yourself for your visit is to see some of the Smithsonian Channel’s short videos about the museum:

The museum has many screens showing videos from the Smithsonian Channel. While interesting and effective, the videos can be a time-consuming distraction from the items on display, especially if you have limited time for your visit. One solution: watch some of these videos (and from other sources) in advance of your visit:

Suggestion:

Look for exhibits about and references to your home state. When we entered the museum I asked the information desk if they had any exhibits that included items or information about Colorado, but the staff member wasn’t able to offer anything specific. I was able to find photos and exhibits about historical Coloradans only because I was on the lookout for those references, and because I am familiar with enough Colorado history to know the names to look for. It would be wonderful if the museum would provide a handout for each state with highlighted exhibits.

For Coloradans:

Coloradan Clara Brown Exhibit

Clara Brown, who came to Colorado and worked as a cook, midwife, and laundress, invested in mines and land, using her earnings to support local organizations and reunite her family. Find her exhibit on Level C2 between exhibits about Robert Smalls and Edmonia Highgate.

Exhibit about cowboy Charles Rothwell

Black Routes West on L3 in the Power of Place section has an exhibit about Charles Rothwell, a cowboy from Dearfield, Colorado, including a photo, wool felt hat, rope and boots on loan from Denver’s Black American West Museum and Heritage Center.

Carlotta Walls LaNier was the youngest student selected to integrate Little Rock High School. Her skirt and blouse worn on the first day of school is displayed on Level C2, along with her 10th-grade report card. LaNier has lived in Colorado for many years and donated these items to the museum.

Carlotta Walls LaNier Exhibit

A Lesser Experience: The Newseum

Ok, to stay within the theme of this post, I was tempted to call this “It was the worst of museum visits”, but that would be an exaggeration. It probably wasn’t the “worst.”

As a journalism major in college and news junkie, I had looked forward to visiting the Newseum for years. While I’m willing to return and give the museum another chance, my visit was disappointing. And I’m not sure I’ll return because the museum is so expensive!

At $24.95 per adult, this museum is a stark contrast to the Smithsonian Museums. To be fair, you can purchase your tickets in advance for a 15% discount and you can use your ticket to come back the next day, but still . . .

Newseum’s cluttered exhibits

Most disappointing about the Newseum is how overwhelming the experience is. Visually cluttered and confusing, the exhibits can be hard to navigate and filter, leaving your brain exhausted all too soon. The constant noise coming from video screens doesn’t help.

Helen Thomas’ red suit

The problem is that some of the Newseum’s exhibits include a lot of information about an event (9-11,The Berlin Wall, the Civil Rights Movement), which muddles the explanations about how the event was covered by the press. And all of the exhibits suffer from the clutter of so much description, which almost hides the artifacts that are important. I tried to skim the text and look for artifacts that would mean something to me, but it was difficult and tiring. The Newseum needs better emphasis on items that deserve our focus, for example Tim Russert’s “Florida! Florida! Florida!” white board, Margaret Bourke-White’s camera, a reporter’s notepad with notes about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Daniel Pearl’s laptop, passport and other reporting tools. I hate to think that I might have missed items like these if I weren’t so focused and persistent. Of course, it’s hard to miss Helen Thomas’s bright red suit, which was a joy to see.

Bill Biggart’s equipment from 9-11

A favorite was the powerful exhibit about freelance news photographer Bill Biggart who passed away while capturing images of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The exhibit is powerful and educational, but requires you to walk around to the backside of a wall in the World Trade Center exhibit to find it.

Also, visit the outdoor terrace at the top of the building. Great views of the Capitol, especially in the late afternoon sun.

For the life of me I can’t understand why one of the first exhibits on the walk through the museum is about the Kennedy family in the White House. While the photos are excellent, I can’t imagine why this is the introduction to understanding the history of journalism or modern-day challenges. Someone has an obsession that they took too far and that younger generations won’t find relatable. (This exhibit is temporary and marks the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth.)

View from the Newseum terrace

And, seriously, an exhibit about the “first dogs”? In a museum about journalism? (silently screaming inside)

My recommendations:

Only go to the Newseum if you are a die-hard news geek. I’ll probably return, but alone so I can really take my time and obsess for hours.

Don’t take young children, and you can probably skip it for most teenagers. I’d only bring a kid who has a strong interest in journalism and a strong understanding of history. If you do bring kids, head as quickly as possible to the interactive news room on Level 2. The kids there seemed to be having fun.

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