Flipping around the Interweb this morning, I ran across a Wired article entitled "Five Great Interactive Museums to Visit this Summer" and realized that I hadn't addressed a common question I've received from many of my visitors. With the abundance of world-class free museums in Washington, DC (Smithsonian, National Gallery of Art, Holocaust Memorial Museum, Building Museum, etc. etc.), it is possible to spend weeks here, visit a new museum every day, and never pay a cent. Unless, of course, you want to buy lunch in one of them and then have to sell a kidney, but that's a different story. But since you've made it all the way to DC, folks often want to splurge and shell out money for one of the pay museums; the ones that actually cost U.S. dollars. So watch one?
When the International Spy Museum opened in 2002, many people, including myself, were skeptical. Would visitors and locals alike, trained like Pavlov's dogs to expect free museums, pay almost twenty bucks a head to see a museum when you can walk across the street and go to a free one? The answer, of course, was a resounding yes, and the Spy Museum was followed by the Newseum, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, and, for some inexplicable reason, Madame Tussauds. So now the question becomes, if I'm going to blow fifty plus dollars taking my family to a museum, which one?
For me, the answer is simple: the Newseum. When this museum opened last spring, I was dubious. I had visited it's previous incarnation across the river in Rosslyn and liked it, but hadn't missed it much when it closed. I was ready to give the new and improved version a shot, but then I was annoyed by their ad campaign, centered around billing themselves as "the World's Most Interactive Museum". It's a ridiculous claim. How do you measure interactivity? What standard do you use? Have you checked all the other museums in the world? And while we're at, why is interactivity inherently good? Museum experience is all about creating connections with your subject, and interactivity, while a useful tool, is just that. It isn't a basis on which a museum should be judged. It's like billing yourself as having the "most floor space" or "cleanest restrooms". Fine but, at best, you're celebrating the supporting cast.
I'm glad I didn't let my intellectual snobbery get in the way. While I still maintain that the marketing type that came up with that slogan shout be shot, or at least beaten severally as a warning to others, the Newseum has the goods. The vaunted interactivity is fine, and even adds to the experience, but with so much more to offer, why sell that? Their exhibits are well crafted, full of authentic artifacts, and engaging. The building itself is well laid out, with a thoughtful path that allows deviations if something else interests you, and, perhaps most importantly, easily handles large amounts of people without feeling crowded (Spy Museum, take note here).
A little advice to get the most out of your twenty bucks ($13 for kids 7-18): When I come in, I usually skip the intro film. It's ok, and if you're looking for some time off your feet take advantage of it, but it's mostly a sales pitch for the ticket you just paid for. Head downstairs, decline the film, swing by the watchtower from Checkpoint Charlie and take the World's Largest Glass Elevator (or so they claim) to the sixth floor. If you don't know what Checkpoint Charlie is/was, it'll probably be covered when your class learns about Ancient History.
Upon exiting the elevator, I always enjoy the "Today's Front Pages", where they print up that day's front page from a Representative newspaper in most states and several foreign countries. Hey! Here's a fun game: see if your city's newspaper went out of business while you're on vacation! Kidding aside, it's interesting to compare the placement of articles and what makes/doesn't make the front page across the country. If the weather is nice, be sure to check out the view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Terrace.
On the way down, you might wish to pick and choose which galleries to see. Any of them can take at least a half hour to thoroughly explore, so budget your time. I'd be sure not to miss the 9/11 gallery on the fourth floor. I try to watch the video once a year but, frankly, it's often more than I can take. The "Great Books" and "News History" galleries on the fifth floor are worth visiting as well. For those of you who can't miss it, the flashing lights and interactive stuff is mostly on the second floor. The 4-D movie "I-witness" is fun and a nice twenty minute break. It is, to put it mildly, a non-critical look at the media, but hey, the seats shake. The cafe, on the concourse level, is good, albeit not a bargain at standard museum cafe prices. Finally, "G-Men and Journalists", also on the concourse level, is well done and only on display through this year. It's a great look at the relationship between law enforcement and the media.
Plan on spending at least three hours at the Newseum. I give my eighth graders an hour at the Spy Museum and some of them are already out in forty five minutes. At the Newseum, I'm invariably hunting down a couple and they want to go back the next day.