Museums | From Slaves to Heroes | The Alexandria Experience | Of Water and Bread | Presidential Material
This chapter explores the past in varied forms, from homes of famous Americans to discursions on how ordinary Americans lived and played (especially played) to the devastating effects of human prejudice. Our criteria for inclusion have been fairly loose, including hands-on archaeology, some fussy historic homes and museums bursting with historic artifacts.
Some places here are not for all kids. The heavily visited U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, demands careful parental judgment on whether children are ready to cope with that enormous tragedy. Similarly, Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum has one exhibit on the tortured occupants of a slave ship and another on lynchings, which parents may find too disturbing for some children.
In less difficult cases, some kids simply may be bored by static displays of rusty tools or musty furniture or old-fashioned clothing. Many sites feature docents dressed in what is invariably referred to as "period garb," acting as if the cotton gin was never invented and penicillin never discovered. It can be more than a little precious when some lady in a mobcap asks you what a digital watch is, but many children connect with what is essentially play-acting.
Because of the central roles that slavery and racism have played in American history, we've separated out explorations of African American history, even though a planned Washington museum addressing the subject has unfortunately not yet been built. Since Alexandria once the most bustling and cosmopolitan town on the Potomac is basically one big piece of living history, we've organized it separately as well. Finally, water was the fossil fuel of the 18th Century, and the Washington region is awash in one of the prominent water uses of those days: grist mills. We review them here, too.
The attractions discussed can, of course, be visited in any season, but timing a visit to coincide with when your child is learning about a particular historic period at school might be more rewarding for both of you.
From Slaves to Heroes
A museum of African American history is planned for the Mall. Until it becomes a reality, you can find at least some parts of the sweeping story of African Amercians at various places. The National Museum of American History's "From Field to Factory" exhibit details the great migration that brought rural blacks from the South to such urban centers as Chicago. The National Museum of American Art holds major works by black artists in its collection, including paintings by William H. Johnson. The Arts and Industries Building often plays host to shows with an African American theme. The following places take a more active role in exploring black history:
The Alexandria Experience
You can't walk very far in Alexandria without stepping on something historic. The former tobacco port has been steeping itself in history since the days of Washington and Lee. Most attractions will be over the heads of the smallest children, Alexandria having a somewhat rarified and genteel approach to its complement of historic sights. Teens and precocious preteens may prefer simply to shop along King Street and down by the water. Be aware that the city's stock of historic buildings means that wheelchair access can be problematical.
Of Water and Bread
Few things are as anachronistic today as the grist mills that once were a staple of American life: huge, grooved stones turned by water, crushing grain. Yet they suggest how life used to be. A half-dozen area mills can show kids the work that used to go into making a simple loaf of bread. Many have special programs, such as cider-pressing or blacksmithing demonstrations, and most sell flour that's been ground the old-fashioned way. Note that the main attraction a water-turned wheel may not always be functioning. There needs to be enough water to make the thing work. Pierce Mill in the District and Colvin Run in Great Falls are the most convenient for most Washingtonians.
Every U.S. president with the exception of George Washington has lived in the White House, but around town you will of course find memorials, monuments and tributes to many of Washington's successors. Not all are worth a trip unto themselves, but any of them can make informative, sometimes fascinating stopovers during other outings. We examine those that are of most interest to parents and kids.
For a view of the first president as engineer and entrepreneur, visit the museum and grounds of Virginia's Great Falls Park, which tells the story of his ill-fated Potowmack Canal Company. For a stranger and intimate view into Washington the Freemason, visit the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. And when you're in Baltimore, the other Washington Monument (Charles Street and Mount Vernon Place; 410/396-0929) makes a great side trip. For a $1 donation, you can climb the steps of the 178-foot-tall monument (described as the nation's "first formal" monument to Washington, dating from 1831) for a breathtaking view of one of the Baltimore's most urbane neighborhoods.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
John F. Kennedy
The Other 36
Near National Airport, alongside the George Washington Memorial Parkway en route to National Airport, you'll find the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, 15 acres of gardens fronting a freeway and a rather unpleasant waterfront; there's a big chunk of Texas granite and some of that President's less colorful quotes (it's part of the larger Lady Byrd Johnson Park, a tribute to her role as beautifier of the U.S. landscape). And the Woodrow Wilson House, home of the 28th U.S. president (the only one to choose to live here after his presidency), may be a worthy stop for curious students 12 and up. The admission price provides a movie and a tour; the kitchen is a time capsule of 1920s upper-class domestic life, and the library is full of souvenirs from Wilson's travels. Wilson, disabled by a stroke in 1919, used the vintage 1915 elevator to maneuver between the floors. Wilson is the only president buried in the District of Columbia; you can visit his tomb, adorned with the sword of a crusader, at Washington National Cathedral.
Finally, the area's largest collection of presidential portraiture is at the National Portrait Gallery's Hall of Presidents. Not to be missed: Norman Rockwell's Richard Nixon, so pure and idealized that it makes you want to re-evaluate your opinion of both the subject and the artist.
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