The National Museum of American History illustrates the short history of the United States with a varied display of objects, from a giant American flag to a 280 tons weighing steam locomotive.
The National Museum of American History is one of the many museums operated by the Smithsonian Institution, which was founded in the early nineteenth century thanks to a bequest by the British scientist James Smithson. The roots of its collection go back to 1876, when objects from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition were handed over to the ‘National Museum’, which opened its doors in 1881 in the Arts and Industries Building.
As the collection of the National Museum continued to expand, the Smithsonian decided to spread the collection between different museums specialized in a particular topic.
The first spin-off was the Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1910. The Museum of American History followed in 1964, when it opened as the Museum of History and Technology.
Its collection moved to a new building on the National Mall, which was designed by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Despite the firm’s pedigree, they designed a rather mediocre modernist building, arguably the least interesting building on the Mall.
The museum’s collection is divided into thematic areas such as ‘Transportation and Technology’ and ‘American Wars and Politics’. The collection is very diverse, and includes some historic curiosities such as George Washington’s false teeth, the hat Abraham Lincoln wore when he was shot dead in the Ford’s Theatre and a jersey worn by Michael Jordan. But there are also everyday items that were once found in many households, such as a Walkman and an Apple-II computer.
The museum’s most famous highlight is undoubtedly the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that became known as the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the national anthem of the United States. Key wrote the patriotic poem – originally entitled ‘The Defense of Fort McHenry’ – in 1814 after seeing the flag wave from the top of Fort McHenry while it was being bombarded by British warships.
Another highlight from the same era is the primitive-looking gunboat Philadelphia, which was sunk by the British in 1776, the same year it was put in operation. It was recovered in 1935 from the bottom of Lake Champlain in New York. From a more recent battle is the helicopter that was used in the Vietnam War.
Many visitors will enjoy the exhibit ‘America on the move’, which highlights the evolution of transportation on the American continent, starting with covered wagons and ending with jam-packed highways. Here you find a 1913 Ford T, a huge locomotive and a train from Chicago‘s elevated (‘L’) rapid transit system.
Also of interest is a collection of items that shed a light on the daily life of presidents, and the First Ladies’ Hall, which explores the function of the presidents’ wives.
There are many other exhibitions but one you shouldn’t miss if you’re acquainted with American TV shows and movies is the gallery ‘American Stories’. Here you find the Kermit the Frog puppet and the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’. There are also objects from the realms of sports and music.