There’s a saying that “great minds think alike.” They aren’t satisfied with what is. They innovate and invent. And in the process, they can make history.
On Wednesday, the National Museum of American History will open an entire wing devoted to inventors and their creations. It showcases American inventions going back more than a century and encourages visitors of all ages to be part of the next wave of innovation.
Thankfully, Smithsonian officials have designed the new Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation with kids in mind. All of the exhibits involve some form of interactivity.
The most hands-on area is Spark!Lab, which existed in the old space but has been reimagined.
Spark!Lab’s activities are based on a theme that will change every three months. “Things That Roll,” the first theme, ties in with inventions you can see in cases along the walls: a rolling pin, a robotic vacuum, a skateboard and more.
But the big attractions are several stations at which kids can make things that roll. During a preview day, kids worked on creating roller-coaster rides and robots. At a spot called the Hub, they made skateboards out of cardboard, duct tape and other odds and ends.
“The idea is that you can invent things with stuff you have in your own house,” said Tricia Edwards, an education specialist at the museum.
Evan Maldonado, 11, of Orlando, Florida, said building a skateboard wasn’t what he’d expected from a trip to a history museum. “It’s a little weird,” Evan said while waiting for glue to dry. He said it reminded him of trips to the science center back home.
The intersection of science and history is highlighted in several new galleries.
“Places of Invention” focuses on six areas of the country where breakthroughs happened in the past 150 years. In the 1950s, Minnesota came up with revolutionary medical devices. A section of New York City called the Bronx was where hip-hop music was born. And Silicon Valley in California is the birthplace of the personal computer. Seeing the inventions is interesting and sometimes funny (ask your parents about the giant boombox), and kids will want to try the activities. The DJ tutorial on “scratching” should be especially popular.
Another not-to-miss part of Lemelson Hall is “Object Project,” a collection of “everyday things that changed everything.” One object, the bicycle, has its story told by way of a book in which text and photos magically appear and disappear. There’s also virtual dress-up to show how clothing went from tailor-made to factory-produced.
Businesses that made inventive products get their own gallery, “American Enterprise.” At first glance, an exhibit on business may seem boring, but this one has a few surprises. In the back corner, an area called the Exchange features several challenges. Visitors can learn about cooperation and competition by trying to light up a model of a skyscraper. A multimedia experience allows visitors to play modern-day farmer.
Including hands-on activities in museums isn’t a new idea. “There are many places in the country that are experimenting with presenting history in fun ways,” acknowledged the Smithsonian’s Howard Morrison, who helped create “Object Project.” But with Lemelson Hall, he said, “we’ve upped the game a little bit.”
What: Opening of innovation wing. Special events include music, building a huge Lego flag and a chocolate-making demonstration.
Where: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
When: Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How much: Free.
For more information: A parent can call 202-633-1000 or go to americanhistory.si.edu.