Occupying a wedge of a Columbia Heights storefront between a Peruvian chicken joint and a fro-yo shop is a curious temple to exploration. Inside, stuffed, primitive animalia adorn the walls, international expeditions are detailed and visitors can pick up a bottle of unicorn tears.
Welcome to the Museum of Unnatural History, an exotic lair of imagination and learning filled with all sorts of “history” that never happened. In the vast room behind the in-progress “cave,” the stuffed “owlephant” and the plaque listing the entirely fictitious “planets that were asked to leave the solar system,” area schoolchildren are hard at work, honing their writing skills and meeting with tutors.
Opened last fall by the nonprofit organization 826DC — one of a handful of branches of a national organization co-founded by author Dave Eggers — the “museum” is part of a grand mission to get kids writing.
“More people are using the written word right now than ever before in the history of the world — e-mailing, text-messaging, all that stuff,” says 826DC Executive Director Joe Callahan. “Being able to write in your own voice is one of the most important skills that someone can have.”
The kids who filter through the Columbia Heights storefront several days a week hail largely from the neighborhood’s schools, including Harriet Tubman Elementary, but they can come from as far away as the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The quirky museum is a signal to them, says Callahan, that what goes on inside isn’t anything like school.
A hilarious list of the “top places we’ve been having our big scientific epiphanies” notes the special significance of the bathroom; a lineup of “the world’s best noses” features one particularly snubby proboscis belonging to an “Argentine puma,” which can “smell not only fear, but ennui.” The shelves are stocked with “Hindsight” sunglasses, huge jars of “Formal-dehyde” and the clearly less formal “Business Casual-dehyde.” Sales of the books, T-shirts and gag gifts in the shop help fund the classes in the back. For adults and older kids who just want to check out the diminutive museum, it can be a gas, with plenty to touch and read.
But it’s the learning that’s at the core of Unnatural History. To ensure that the volunteer-taught classes are open to anyone ages 6 to 18, 826DC offers its services free of charge. In the workshops and the field trips organized with area schools, youths try their hand at everything from writing their own creature-themed storybooks to penning a speech (crucial stuff in wonky Washington) to learning how to interview someone and write a profile.
All of it, says Callahan, “is about a larger goal of getting kids to confidently understand where they can go.”
Where is it? 3233 14th St. NW. 202-525-1074 or www.826dc.org.
When is it? Upcoming writing workshops include “Forgiveness Explored” (Thursday; for 11th- and 12th-graders), “Speech! Speech! Speech!” (April 16 and 23; for ages 11 to 13), and “Creature Feature” (May 14 and 21; for ages 6 to 10). Tutoring in multiple subjects is from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The museum is open daily from noon to 6 p.m.
How much does it cost? A $25 holding fee is required for workshops; it is refunded when your child attends the class. Tutoring is free. Registration is required for both.
Where can I find more information? For details and to register, e-mail