While a lot of the big ticket items will be closed, there's still plenty to do and see in DC. Frankly, some of these less visited venues are more interesting that the high-draw options, and you could plan a perfectly good trip around them alone. So let's take a look at a few:
Entries in Newseum (4)
I know, I know, I'm supposed to finish up my discussion of African Americans at Arlington. I'll get to it, but for those of you who may not be paying attention, those of us in DC have been a little busy recently. As I write this, the snow has started again here in the Nation's Capital, and supplies of milk and humor are running low. Fortunately, we're still have some reserve stocks of beer, or things could be looking desperate.
I spent the first few days of this white nightmare holed up in my friend's place in Maryland; after staging an impromptu reenactment of the fall of Saigon with my two kids, getting out of here as the storm hit. Thanks to them, I still can make at least a tenuous claim to sanity, but I couldn't avoid heading home forever. After a few days of hanging out with three dogs and five children under five, and passing the time shoveling four hundred feet of driveway; we took advantage of the brief window between blizzards to bust our way back into DC yesterday.
So what's this got to do with visiting DC? I mean, who would be trying to visit us right now? And even if you wanted to, it would be virtually impossible to get here, as my wife has been finding out this last week. But what if you're weekend trip to DC was this week, and you're spending some more time here than planned? This doesn't happen often, but what do you do in DC when all the stuff you came to DC for is canceled?
So, in the off chance some of our visitors are trying to make lemonade out of yellow snow, let me give them a hand.
1. Transportation - You brought it with you! That's right, those two appendages sticking down from your pelvis. Just about everything else is going to be shut down or unreliable. Buses go fairly early, outside some main routes. Metro rail will stay open until we get about eight inches, then the above-ground stations will shut down. Even on the underground lines, be prepared for some serious headways (time between trains). And you have very little business driving in DC in the best of times, much less now. Cabs will still run in most weather, but will be scarce. Watch the meter, they're not allowed to charge more than 25% in a snow emergency. So focus on exploring the area around where you're staying and/or near open Metro stops.
2. What's open? Right now, precious little. In most cases, once the above ground lines shut down, the museums will follow suit, as it's hard to get staff in and out. One exception I've noticed: the Newseum has been persistently open these last few days, and Air and Space and Natural History were open today. Everything else has been more or less shut down since Friday (feel free to let me know if I'm wrong in the comments). The monuments shut down during the heavy winds, but if you're up for a good winter hike, I strongly recommend a stroll down to see them. The Korean Memorial is particularly striking in the snow.
3. So, if all the touristy stuff is shut down, then what? Despite some well publicized problems, I strongly recommend a good snowball fight. If you can't get a pick-up one going, blogs and twitter feeds are a good way to find out where folks are meeting up. This time around, good ones got going at Dupont Circle, the Mall, and Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. You can also grab a piece of cardboard and go sledding. I personally like Capitol Hill, a traditional favorite. The only trick is avoiding the Capitol Police. Some are cool, some are, well, not.
4. And finally, you'll need a place to warm up. I find that locally operated places tend to do a better job of staying open than chains and such. For example, my personal favorite, Peregrine Coffee near Eastern Market is routinely fueling my habit while the Starbucks a block over might as well board up. So rather than head downtown, try Eastern Market,Dupont Circle, or some other Metro accessible neighborhood where the most of both the clientele and the staff normally walks there (and will to get out of the house!).
Ideally, you're reading this back home in some relatively less snowy place like Buffalo, but if you are stuck in DC, I hope this helps.
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.
Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was one place that captured the imaginations of die hard Lincoln aficionados and casual tourists alike: Ford's Theater. Ford's Theater was widely popular for being what is was: the Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. You go in, and in a small dark basement was The Gun That Killed Lincoln. No one, not even the most jaded, i-pod listening, FBI t-shirt wearing, 8th grader, needed interpretation. There it all was; the gun, the overcoat with the President's blood, the shackles the conspirators wore; all of it, just sitting there. And the kids were entranced. They didn't need themed displays. They didn't want interactive toys. They saw History, and they knew it. Coupled with the excellent restoration of the theater based on pictures taken shortly after the assassination by Mathew Brady, it was an excellent place to connect with one of America's most pivotal moments.
Well, time moves on and the universe continues it's inevitable push towards entropy. The powers that be decided it was time to sink $50 million into bringing Ford's Theater into the 21st Century. Here's a project I enthusiastically supported. The theater needed work. It wasn't ADA compliant, there was no lobby (and hence no bar!), and any time I hear "historic site" and "dated electrical plan" I cringe and feel the need to throw money at it. And, while they're at, if they could fix those chairs that felt as if I was scourging myself for some unknown sin, well, that would be fine too. All in all, my old friend was in bad shape, and I wished her all the best while she had some needed surgery.
It turns out, however, in addition to the needed bypass surgery, my friend had been sold a bill of goods by a plastic surgeon. Face lifts, augmentations, all kids of things were done to her to get her to look younger and hipper. And like so much plastic surgery, it was all so unnecessary. Eager to hear more about the renovations, I attended a public meeting held by the National Park Service and the Ford's Theater Society, the two organizations that jointly run the Theater as both a monument and a functioning theater. What I heard made me cringe.
First off, the Theater will now only be accessible by timed tickets. Previously, you waited in line if you wished to see the Park Ranger give his hourly presentation at the Theater. At times, you got a good one, and the presentation was worth the wait. Generally, it was just some NPS hack up there boring the kids. So I was able skip all of that and take my groups up to the balcony, let them take their pictures, point out a few items, and head down to the museum. It was quick, and it was real. The kids loved it and it was a meaningful and concise visit. Then we would head outside, do a quick tour of the Peterson House (across the street where Lincoln died) and be on our merry way.
Now, we have to get timed tickets. For all of it, including the Peterson House. And you have to suffer through the godawful Park Service presentation in order to see the museum. That's fine for the big tour companies who churn thousands of eight graders through the city (Worldstrides, I'm looking at you here), but for the casual visitor, it kills the drop in visit. So now, if you're coming to DC and don't have Ford's already planned out on your itinerary, it ain't happening. No more quick visits. It's now A Thing. And for us locals, who used to drop in with visitors when we happened to be downtown, the tickets pull Ford's Theater out of the fabric of our city. Now it's a planned event, something that you have to mean to do. It rips away the spontaneity that made Ford's Theater so accessible to us. Now it's like the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument; something locals won't do because it's a hassle.
And this may be for the best, because the other great failing in the new plan is the reworking of the museum. The same museum that was one of my favorite haunts has been spruced up. No longer will it be quaint yet meaningful experience of yore. Now, instead of "just" being the place where Lincoln died, they want to tell the comprehensive story of Lincoln in DC. Thanks folks, without you, I just might not notice that Lincoln had lived here. Unless of course I went to any other museum in town! Focus on what you have, the story of the Lincoln Assassination and quit trying to re-teach the whole Civil War.
My final frustration is one that transcends just Ford's Theater. Everyone is trying to be more "interactive" and less static. In the last year alone we've had the Newseum and the Museum of Crime and Punishment open up, to join many other infotainment centers. Now, I like a game room as much as the next guy and both of the places I mention above I heartily recommend. But they have to catch you with bells and whistles because they don't have it. That rare quality of being on a site where History with a capital H happened. Ford's has it, why squander it with touch screens and gizmos? You were drawing in the crowds; why try to compete with the flashing lights?
I haven't seen the Theater yet, as it just reopened and I'll be damned if I wait in line for a ticket. It's like a friend asking you to make an appointment when you stop by. I will swing by next week with a tour group, so I'll give everyone an update with my impressions once I see it. I wish I could tell you when the museum proper opens, but as of today (Feb 21st) the Park Service's website still says that the Theater itself will open February 12th. Crackerjack web presence you guys got there. At least they note that "Winter can bring cold temperatures, frozen precipitation and, on occasions, major snowstorms." Awesome, thanks.
Anyway, as always, if anyone else out there happens across Ford's any time soon, please leave your impressions in the comments. Despite my misgivings, I hope others with fresh eyes have a positive experience there.