New National Children’s Museum underwhelms the under-8 crowd

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 27, 2012

The best thing about the new National Children’s Museum?

“Frederick” was the verdict from my 8-year-old. He ran into an old classmate he hadn’t seen in a while and he said that seeing Frederick was the highlight of his visit to the new $7 million interactive children’s museum that’s been eight years in the making.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And I have to agree with him.

Compared with children’s museums across the country that we have visited — Baltimore, Boston, New York, Miami, Durham, N.C., San Francisco, and Santa Ana and Sausalito in California— this new national museum is not in the same league.

Of course, I felt bad telling that to the museum’s executive vice president, Thomas Berger, who agreed that the one at National Harbor isn’t as big as many others, such as the 80,000-square-foot Port Discovery in Baltimore or the 88,000-square-foot Boston Children’s Museum or the gargantuan 472,000-square-foot Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

This one is just 18,000 square feet.

Maybe those places are so ginormous because a “meh” kind of town needs a more spectacular museum. Washington is pretty impressive, and the children’s sections in many of the Smithsonian museums collectively make them fantastic places for kids.

The new facility would be fine if it were the Children’s Museum at National Harbor or the Prince George’s County Museum for Children.

But it calls itself the National Children’s Museum and describes itself as “the only congressionally-designated museum focused exclusively on children.” And that’s misleading for families who make the trek to a place that has no Metro access, limited bus service, no free parking and costs $10 a head to enter.

I told Berger that I took my boys, who are 6 and 8.

“That’s our sweet spot,” he said.

But they weren’t too sweet on the place.

There was a giant crane, which they could crank to lift baskets of stuff. It commanded their attention for a couple of minutes. They liked the textured ramps that they could send cars racing, bumping or crawling down. And the exhibit designed to explain politics and campaigning offered them an opportunity to make campaign buttons. They drew goblins with butts (which some folks may agree is an accurate depiction of much of Congress).

The spaces are all clean and attractive, the staff cheerful and helpful.

I tried hard to get them excited about the play kitchen or the African marketplace. I couldn’t begin to figure out why the museum had bunk beds as an exhibit. “How about the fire engine?” I tried. “You can dress up?”

They weren’t having it.

“Mom, if you want to quote me, you can say that I said, ‘This is lame, lame, lame,’ ” the 8-year-old declared.

My 6-year-old pronounced it “boring.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible that my children are jaded brats who have seen too many super-cool museums. Berger said the rest of the museum will be a 60,000-square-foot outdoor space that will be built out in the coming year. So maybe my little critics will be impressed with that.

And in fairness to the facility, its mission isn’t naturally glitzy. In a science museum, kids get hands-on activities with things that bang, crackle, spin and pop. That’s hard to top when your mission is “the arts; civic engagement; the environment; global citizenship; health and well being; and play.”

I’m not alone in my skepticism. The few reviews on Yelp have been largely ruthless.

“This place would be fine for a small town, but is an embarrassment to the concept of a National children’s museum,” wrote Mike M. from Burke, Va. “Fire the people who designed this second rate tourist trap and try again.”

Syd E. from Fairfax was equally unimpressed.

“I recently went to the children’s museum in Raleigh, NC, so my review is based partly on how great that one is compared to this,” Syd wrote. “This place is BORING . . . I actually asked if there was an upstairs (no) because I was surprised.”

Me, too. I kept asking the very friendly staff if this was “it,” wondering whether there were stairs that I was missing. Nope. Just the big room, and the theater in the back.

Stacy A. from Arlington hated it so much, she actually got the staff to give her a refund.

“This isn’t a children’s museum, it’s a mid-sized playzone. If you are expecting a children’s museum like you find in other cities, you’ll be disappointed.”

The old children’s museum closed in 2004, leaving behind its longtime home in Northeast Washington. For eight years, it was in limbo. Plans to reconstruct in L’Enfant Plaza were killed by the economy. Then it took years of fundraising — through private and county funds — to get it off the ground at National Harbor.

Somehow, though, in all that time, it seems little consideration went into what, exactly, kids would be learning inside and how to get them engaged and excited.

Berger said the museum will continue to tweak, improve and update the exhibits, based on public feedback. Something tells me it’ll be getting a lot of it.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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