Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Visit at Your Own Risk

My favorite museum in DC used to be the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History. I say "used to" because when it shut down a couple of weeks after I moved here in August 2006 I kind of forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. This area is blessed with an amazing collection of museums, many of them offering free entry, so it was easy to move on. But when I returned to town last month and heard that after two years of renovation the museum would finally reopen on November 21st, I was looking forward to putting it back on my favorites list. Unfortunately, a visit to the supposedly new and improved space brought only disappointment. Two years and $85 million dollars later, I couldn't for the life of me find anything that had changed for the better.

Maybe I went into the museum with expectations that were much too high. After that kind of time and financial commitment I expected to see a total transformation. I wanted new and improved exhibits, technological advances in museum displays and a space that was open and easy to navigate. What I found was a museum not unlike the one that I had visited multiple times before it closed. The exhibits were the same, nothing in the displays indicated the best in museum technology and the halls that led to various sections were narrow and dark. The old National Museum of American History featured a dramatic entrance, replete with the original Star Spangled Banner; the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would later become our national anthem. Now, the flag is hidden in a room just off the entrance. And you wouldn't have believed the line. Something that used to be visible to all with little or no difficulty is now only accessible to those willing to stand and wait.

Needless to say, I left the museum feeling incredibly disappointed. I didn't see a single thing that impressed me or would make me go back. Granted, my visit did happen to fall on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and only the second weekend after the museum's opening, so the crowds were pretty intense. Not waiting to get in and not having to fight to see displays might improve any future experience. And I did enjoy seeing the American Presidents exhibit as well as Kermit the Frog. But that doesn't change the fact that everything I saw I had already seen before. Where was the innovation? Where were the new featured artifacts? And what about the fact that the ladies' room was tiny? You spend $85 million dollars and can't build a restroom with more than four stalls so as to avoid wait lines that wrap around the corner? It's a good thing about that expansive DC museum collection. I can still get my history/art/fun facts fix without having to go to the one that used to be my favorite.


Andi said...

Oh bummer! That is my favorite Smithsonian. I had planned to take my husband there next April. I wants to visit D.C. since he has decided to become a citizen (he was waiting for the election turnout!). I have a ton of memories from when I lived there and always made my parents take us there whenever we went into the city. Ugh, now I am torn. Maybe it will still be cool to my husband, I am sorry to hear it was disappointing for you!

Tanya said...

Andi: Don't be bummed! It will probably be totally cool for him since he's never been there. Most of my disappointment stemmed from the fact that I didn't feel as if the new museum was any different from the old museum. But I think it would definitely be interesting for a first-time visitor. And in any case, if he doesn't like it, at least it was free and there are a ton of other museums right next door!

Congrats on his upcoming citizenship! That is very exciting!