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Entries in Holocaust Musuem (12)

Thursday
Jul302009

So how much does the Smithsonian cost to visit?

Alright, for locals this is kind of like asking who's buried in Grant's Tomb, but it's a legitimate question, or at least one I'm asked fairly often. And in all fairness, those of us who live and work here should think hard about snickering at others. After all, just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine (and fellow tour guide), who we shall call "Mike", visited a large Midwestern city, perhaps Chicago, and was taken aback that their museums charged admission. In fairness to Mike, I too have an initial burst of surprise when I visit a museum outside the Beltway and have to reach for my wallet.

The short answer, of course, is that the Smithsonian is free, unless you count it's museum of design, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, which will set you back fifteen bucks. Oh, and the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum out near Dulles International Airport will charge you fifteen bucks for parking, so that is a de facto admission charge as it almost, but not quite, impossible to get there any other way.

But for all the Smithsonian Museums in DC, and specifically on the National Mall, the cost is nothing. That's right, they're free. And not just them, the National Gallery of Art (also on the Mall), the Building Museum, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others, also charge no admission

Now, I'm sure all you Heinlein fans out there are crying TANSTAAFL, and you're right. The truth is, you've already paid your admission to these Museums, whether you choose to read every exhibit placard or sit at home eating Cheetos, assuming, unlike some of our City officials, you actually pay your taxes. The Smithsonian is operated as a trust by Act of Congress and acts, more or less, as a Federal entity. Something like 70% of it's operating budget comes from the US Treasury, with the rest made up of gifts, contributions, and other proceeds such as that eight dollar hamburger you bought.

So what does this all mean? It means that you're being shortchanged if you don't visit. This may be the most direct return you get on your tax return, so take advantage of it.

Tuesday
Jun162009

Holocaust Memorial - A firsthand account

I want to thank all of those who called or wrote me to make sure I, or my group, was OK last week. Obviously, we were all fine, but I appreciate the sentiment. I was with my last major group of the season, a great bunch from Wisconsin, at the Capitol and we were not directly involved at all. However, a fellow guide, Alex Matthews, was with his group at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Alex was kind enough to give me his firsthand account of the tragedy at the Museum.

Last Wednesday, I took my WorldStrides group of 7th and 8th graders for a visit to the Holocaust Museum at around 12:30 p.m. Their visit was to be a brief one to visit the Daniel's Story exhibit. We entered the Museum on the 15th Street side where, as I always do, I pointed out the Eisenhower statement about Holocaust deniers. I then sent them into the exhibit. My lead teacher needed to use the rest room but the other two teachers went into the Daniel's Story exhibit with the students. I positioned myself on the bench at the exit of Daniel's Story to wait for my group. Suddenly, there was a clamor sounding almost like something large and metal may have fallen down the stairs. Once I processed the sound, it became clear that it was gunshots. I told all the students surrounding me (none of whom were in my group) to get down and get under the benches. They did so immediately. Soon thereafter, we could hear the voices of a number of individuals who would turn out to be plain cloths security. It appeared that they did not feel that they had secured the Museum. After a bit, I decided that I needed to be with my group so I ran the few feet to the exit door of Daniel's Story and began to work my way backwards through the exhibit in search of my charges. I informed museum goers of the goings-on as I went. When I finally reached my group, the police had begun to direct groups out the 15th Street door and we were ordered to run out and then run to Independence Ave. My group was assembled at the corner and I walked them across the street to the green space along 15th Street where the teachers and I counted them. We had everyone except the lead teacher but we soon made telephone contact and within a couple of minutes we were reunited. As our bus was parked just outside of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (next door to the Holocaust Museum), I walked the group through the grassy area and then across to the bus. The driver arranged with the police to leave the area via Maine Ave and we were at Union Station by 1:30 p.m. At no point did we know any of the particulars of who had been shot or the extent of the violence. A security guard was uncharacteristically emotional. I could tell from her behavior and some of the things she said that one of her colleagues had been injured and that evening we were sad to hear that he died of his wound.

This experience occasioned a lot of emotion among my teachers and the students. We urged all the students to call their parents to let them know that they were well. My lead teacher called WorldStrides (the tour company) to let them know that we were all safe. After lunch, on the way to the Capitol, we all sat on a stand near the Russell Senate Office Building to talk about and to process what had occurred. Each student was given the opportunity to speak as were all the adults. When I spoke, I told them how pleased I was to be with this particular group who had behaved just as they were asked and cooperated at every turn. I added that there are people who would, through such acts of violence, have us alter and limit our lives. I asked, "do we want them to win?" The students gave a resounding "no."

We then visited the Capitol, the Library of Congress and did a picture stop at the Supreme court and the students were attentive and profited from the experience. After dinner, the teachers decided that the students had lost their ability to absorb any more information and needed to go back to the hotel.

The next day we were unable to walk past the south side of the White House (this usually happens when the president is on the move) -- a disappointment erased by the passing motorcade of the president which occasioned much excitement (especially as my group was from Illinois). Mr.Obama was waving not from his usual limousine but rather a well armored SUV. I suspect, in light of the previous day's events, that the Secret Service advised against
using Marine 1 (helicopter) to go to Andrews AFB for his flight to Green Bay so they had a motorcade to the airport.

Friday
Jun122009

Be Prepared!

With the tragic events this week at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, it might be appropriate to take stock of the chances of politically motivated violence in DC. First off, while rare, these things do happen. Sadly, many folks associate the government or other groups with their problems and come to DC to do something about it. The vast majority are simply sad, but entirely legal and safe, protests or minor disruptions. They fall into the background of city life for those of us who live here and we are often somewhat surprised when visitors stop and gawk when police have a street taped off for the ever present "suspicious package".

But sadly, some of these folks are violent and act out their pathetic problems. The White House, the Capitol, and now the Holocaust Museum have all been targets at some point of gunmen. Coupled with the real, but even more rare chance, of large al Qaeda style attacks, it is only prudent to have a plan when visiting DC.

First off, I would never recommend one cancel a trip to DC or avoid your nation's Capital. I live here, raise small children here, and feel quite comfortable dropping them off at school steps from the Capitol. While I acknowledge the chance that some random violence could affect me, it is far less concerning to me than driving on the Beltway; which kills people on a near monthly basis.

And part of this is just sheer stubborn bloody mindedness on my part. This is my home and our nation's Capital. At no point should it be rendered uninhabitable because there are nutjobs out there who have difficulty coping with who we are and how our society operates. This is your cultural heritage as well, and you should feel comfortable enjoying it not as a privilege, but as your right as an American. Or to be welcomed as our guests, for our international visitors.

I liken this post dealing with the risk of fire. I take prudent steps to avoid fire, have fire extinguishers to prevent small fires from being big ones, and carry fire insurance to help cope with a catastrophic fire. At no point do I either refuse to live in a house or ignore the possibility of a fire. As in so many things, there is a sensible middle ground we can all follow.

On that note, let's take a look at some advice we can use when planning a trip to DC.

1. Information flow is critical: Search out facts, not stories. Lots of conflicting rumors are going to pop up. Search for hard data, listen to the rumors, but be ready for much of it to be false and contradictory. Everyone is trying to get a handle on what's going on; don't expect order and certainty. News media organizations are generally pretty responsible about releasing confirmed info, but pay attention to what is being said and how it's being reported. "Unconfirmed reports say ..." is very different from "Police sources confirm that...". And make sure the flow continues. Let folks at home know everything is alright.

2. Sign up for Alert DC: This is a service run by the DC government that provides free text alerts and instructions in case of an emergency. It's not perfect, and the information is often time-late, but for all that I complain about it; I'm always amazed at how much more aware I am of what's happening elsewhere in the city than those that don't have it. Be ready for a lot of crap that you don't care about, but the website does a pretty good job of allowing it to be tailored to the neighborhoods you plan to be in.

3. Be ready for cell phones not to work: Cell phones are great and I'm completely dependent on them, but it's not unheard of for the networks to go down in times of great stress. This happened on September 11th; they just weren't ready to handle the volume of calls. If working, cell phones are great ways to get info and let folks know what's going on, but just keep in mind they may not.

4. Have a rally point if separated: This is just good advice anywhere you go. One common feature that added to the sense of terror on 9-11 was the inability of folks to find loved ones when cell phone networks were overwhelmed. If you're staying in DC, your hotel is a natural choice. I also like the Old Post Office as it can be seen from far away if you don't know where you are going.

5. Have someone not in the area act as a "message board": Assuming you can't reach each other, it's a good idea to have a common point of contact. For example, in case something happens, we'll all call Uncle Bob to let him know we're ok. That way, if we can't get hold of each other, we can relay things through Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob can also reassure friends and relatives that we're ok. Remember, anything that lessens worry and panic is a good thing in an emergency.

6. Park your car: I'm serious, if you have failed to listen to my advice already and still insist on driving in DC, go back to the hotel or wherever you can and park it. Traffic in DC will bind up in the best of times and almost always in cases like these streets will be closed, whether for the crime scene itself or to park the dozens of emergency vehicles, police cars, mobile command units, etc. One seemingly simple street closure will ripple outward and cause gridlock throughout the Metro area. Plan on walking or taking the Metro. Of course, you should have been doing this anyway.....

7. Follow the directions of security personnel: This is obvious, but also be ready for conflicting instructions. There's going to be a lot of adrenaline pumping and a lot of moving parts have to get up to speed quickly. Give the cops a break and be flexible with them. Don't be afraid to ask them for help, but be judicious on who you bother. Wait for a slack time, ask a pertinent questions, and clear out of their way. A big problem in many events is crowd control and you can help by not being part of it.

8. Don't be a hero: This may be a good response at a shopping mall back home; to try to stop a lone gunman before he shoots up a mall. In DC, there is not, to put it mildly, an insufficient police presence anywhere likely to have tourists. If you get in the way, you're likely to be shot before you can do any good. There's plenty of professionals around to take care of it. Even if you are trained to handle it, got you and yours out of the way as quickly as possible. Call 911 if need be, but stay clear.

9. For kids, have information cards: Every kid should have a card with contact info on it. I can't tell you how many lost kids I've helped that had no way to contact anyone that knew them. Parents names and numbers, off site relative to call, and hotel name and address (but not room number) are all good items to have on it. The child should be instructed to take it to a police officer and give it to him. Privacy concerns are real and valid and the child should not give it to anyone else, but the kid is going to be overwhelmed and possible hysterical. I often end up helping lost kids at the museums and the it's not uncommon for even eighth graders to forget their home numbers. Especially in today's world, where numbers are saved in a cell phone and not memorized.

10. Feel free to continue your vacation: Stay out of the way, keep your wits about you, but don't let someone else ruin your visit. You might miss whatever you were originally planning to see, but DC is chock full of inexpensive or free alternatives. Come to think of it, it's not a bad idea to have a few back-up sites to visit just in general.

Wednesday
May272009

What is "On Time"?

A good dozen of us in the DC area have been watching the latest pseudo-controversy about White House access regarding the cancellation of a tour is elementary school kids attempting to visit the White House, supposedly for a photo op with the Steelers. On the surface, it appears as the story of a callous government bureaucracy not bending a bit to help out with kindergartners.

But, once you dig through the shoddy reporting of the local news, it turns out the kids were over an hour late to the appointment. To the White House. I'm not sure what they thought was going to happen, but let me assure you, on the near impossible chance you get White House tickets, they will be unbending on rescheduling. I'm no fan of the White House's visitor policy, but on this one, I'll cut them some slack.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Not to prolong a ridiculous non-story, but to explore what an appointment time "means" when you have one. So let me run down the list of likely ticket venues and my experiences with being late. Obviously, I should lead in with the usual caveats that this is simply my experience, your's may be different, and I don't speak for any of these organizations. That aside, let's assume you have 12:30 pm tickets to all of these places:

Bureau of Engraving and Printing: I don't know why they even have tickets for this one anymore. Personally, I think their schtick has gotten stale, but if you have tickets, be on time. They're pretty good working with you if you are five to ten minutes late, but no guarantees.

Capitol Visitors Center: 12:30 is the time you line up to enter the movie theater, inside the Visitor's Center. This means you have already passed through security, which you should allow 20 minutes for, although it's routinely less (and occasionally more). Also, you will want to give yourself a few minutes to orient yourself to the new Visitors Center. So, I would plan on being in line to enter the CVC thirty minutes prior to your ticket time and use the spare time, if any, to take a break in the cafeteria and/or explore its excellent museum. The good news; although I don't recommend it, the folks at the Visitor's Center have proven to be very helpful with me in the last few months with late/delayed visitors. It's worth asking them if you miss your ticket time.

Ford's Theater: The ticket time is when the presentation starts. You want to be in line 10 minutes or so before it. You might be able to squeeze in a minute or two after, but don't plan on it. Fortunatly, you can still use the ticket to visit the Peterson House across the street, even if you miss the ranger presentation. Once the museum opens, I'll be posting on ticketing procedures for that.

Holocaust Memorial Museum: Great news here! Ticket times are good for any time after their stated time. So, you could use the 12:30 ticket at 4 pm with no problem. Also, the ticket is only for the Permanent Exhibit. If you arrive early, take the time to check out Danial's Story (if you have kids) on the first floor, or the temporary exhibits in the basement. I strongly recommend one of the current ones, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.

National Archives: Officially, you have to be on time, but I've had luck with just handing the security guard the appointment sheet and bluffing your way in. Not that I recommend it, but it can be done.

Tours: If you have a tour scheduled at a museum, Library of Congress, Cathedral, bike/segway etc. you're going to want to be on time. The tour will start on time and they may or may not allow you to catch up.

Washington Monument: You have about a thirty minute window to use this ticket. If you're ticket is 12:30, I'd be there right about then, but if you are a few minutes late, you'd just get in the 12:30 line and no one would be the wiser. You might be pushing it if you arrived at 12:59 and they were already taking the 1:00's in. Throw yourself on the mercy of the Park Ranger, and you might get lucky.

White House: Yeah, right. Don't be late.

I hope this highly subjective look helps. Not that I ever advocate being late, but.....

Wednesday
Apr012009

What would a visit to DC be without an early morning line?

Now that Ford's Theater has added themselves to the mix; we have a full week worth of lines to wait in, if you wish to see the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. With enough advance warning, you can often purchase tickets ahead of time for each of these, but what if you're in town, and still wish to go? Each of them have "day of" tickets reserved, so you can participate in the grand old Washington tradition of waking up early in the morning and standing in line for tickets.

As I've discussed Ford's Theater elsewhere, and the Capitol is its own steaming pile of muck, let's, for now, address the Washington Monument, BEP, and Holocaust. They're all in close vicinity just off 15th St NW. One reader asks:

Our plan was to have myself or my husband get up at the crack of dawn and get in the ticket queue. How early would you suggest to get in line? Do you have any idea of how many same day tickets are available? What time are they usually gone by? Do you have a choice of time slots or do you just get the next available opening? Finally, do you think either attraction is worth the hassle?

The Washington Monument starts handing out tickets at 8:30 am. I would say you should be there at 7 in the Spring and Summer to have a chance, but you might get lucky a bit later. They will generally go right away, and it is first come, first serve for time slots.

BEP and Holocaust only require tickets from March through August. BEP's tickets start at 8:00 and you often can get lucky until 9. I've even had a stroke of luck at 10 am on a busy day, but I wouldn't plan on that. The ticket booth is on 15th ST, the portion that is renamed Raoul Wallenberg Pl. BEP is closed on weekends and holidays.

Holocaust starts handing out tickets just before the Museum opens at 10, outside it's 14th St entrance. Once the initial rush is over, tickets will be distributed at the information desk inside the museum. It's not difficult to get tickets all the way to noon, or even later occasionally. The great thing about the Holocaust tickets is that they can be used any time that day after the time on the ticket. So always book 10:00 am tickets (or as early as possible). Tickets are only for the permanent exhibit, not for general entry into the Museum.

I don't know how many tickets are on hand at each of these place. I've heard that the Monument reserves 30% of them for same day walk ups, but I have no way to confirm that. Does anyone out there in computerland have a better number? The Monument has groups go up in 30 minute intervals while BEP and Holocaust take them every fifteen minutes.

All of these ticket policies give you a timed ticket, for which you can choose from whatever is left.

The last answer, is it worth it, requires a judgment call. I'd say no, but I've been to each of them dozens of times and will likely go many more. Many, many more times. So I might not be the best judge. If you've flown in from Alaska and this is your last crack at Washington, DC, go for it. If you live nearby, come back in the fall. But if I may, let me offer a few suggestions for alternatives:

1. Washington Monument: Unless you have purchased tickets ahead of time, skip it, and head for the Old Post Office. Not quite the same height but less hassle, more room to view on top, and almost never a wait. The Monument is cool, but plan a trip in the fall if it's a must see.

2. Bureau of Engraving and Printing: Honestly, this place is totally resting on their laurels. Personally, I think they were the best game in town for so long, they've become complacent. The best part of this tour is the gift shop, which you don't technically need to be on the tour to go to. Simply go to the front door on 14th St and tell them you would like to go to the gift shop. They'll have you walk through and you can buy all the shredded money you like. The shop is in the old lobby and a impressive room in its own right. They usually have an engraver there demonstrating his craft on an old press, or whatever the technical term is. Frankly, I find chatting with him far more fascinating than watching money being printed, anyway.

3. Holocaust Memorial Museum: You can still enter the building and see the rotating exhibits, the films, and the kid's exhibit, Danial's Story. So if this is something that interests you, and you just miss out on the tickets, go ahead in and look around. The permanent exhibit is, as you might imagine, both gut-wrenching and fascinating, but in the spring and summer it's so mobbed that you can't really immerse yourself in it anyway. Check out the rest of the stuff, still worth it.