Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, DC)

https://nmaahc.si.edu

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February is Black History Month so it is a perfect time to plan a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.  This new museum, located on the National Mall, is an important must-see museum on any trip to DC.  While the historical story it tells is one of pain and loss, it is also a hopeful celebration of courage and perseverance.  Every American should plan a visit to see this amazing museum.  

The museum is located between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  The building itself is beautiful and full of meaning.  Watch this fun video with your kids about its construction.  They will be fascinated to learn that 60% of the museum is underground!  I highly recommend reading How to Build a Museum before your visit to learn more about this amazing structure and the story behind the decision to build it.

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The museum is the newest Smithsonian, and its popularity can make it difficult to visit without planning ahead.  Check the website for the most up-to-date information on entry but in general:

  • Peak season visits (March-August):
    • Weekday visits before 1 pm and all day on the weekends: Timed-entry passes are required.  Advance tickets are available on the museum’s website on the first Wednesday of each month, 3 months in advance (they do go fast!).  Same-day online passes are released at 6:30 am.
    • Visits after 1 pm: Walk-up tickets available
  • Off-peak season visits (September-February):  Advance tickets required only on the weekends.  Walk up tickets available Monday-Friday.

While this may seem confusing, it does control the massive crowds in the museum, which has some small rooms.  I highly recommend visiting during the off-peak season on a weekday. If you must come during peak season, I recommend coming in the late afternoon to avoid the crowds and to enter without advance tickets.  

Strollers are allowed in the museum and are highly recommended.  If you are touring the National Mall with kids under 5, strollers are a must due to the long walks between sites!

After you enter and go through security, the soaring lobby will take your breath away!  

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The museum is massive so I recommend downloading a map before your visit to plan the best route for your family.  You can also pick up a hard copy at the information desk in the lobby.  Check here to see if there is any specific family-friendly programming, such as Culture Cuddles or Toddling Treasures, during your visit.  The museum also has an app available where you can plan your visit and learn more about the artifacts you will be seeing.

The layout of the museum is different than most museums, with many of the galleries located underground.  The history galleries are on the lower levels and the cultural, sports, and community galleries are on the upper levels.  With kids, I recommend seeing the must-see history galleries first and then seeing how much stamina your kids have left!  The history galleries are recommended for all ages but how quickly you make your way through them will depend on your children’s ages.  There is some content in these galleries for mature eyes only but those areas are easily avoided with younger kids.

Head down the escalator for the entrance to the history galleries. 

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You will go down into the exhibits as a large group so you may have to wait a little here (up to 30-45 minutes during crowded times).  Once your group is assembled, you will take a massive elevator down 3 floors.  During the elevator ride, dates are projected on the walls so it looks like you are going back in time from present day to 1400.  When the doors open, you will be at the beginning of the history galleries.  I recommend visiting the restrooms here as there are no more available in the other history galleries.  

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The galleries tell the story of the global transatlantic slave trade, beginning in the 15th century through its introduction to America in 1619.  

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Note that these galleries are made up of three small, dark rooms, which can easily get crowded.  Be sure to hold tight to children’s hands and don’t let them run ahead.  If your kids are afraid or restless at any point, keep walking to the Paradox of Liberty gallery, which is bigger and brighter.  

These exhibits on the slave trade and slavery in colonial America are full of artifacts and information that kids will find challenging yet important to see.  

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My younger son was fascinated with the gallery on the enslaved soldiers in the American Revolution, and the short movie is definitely worth watching. 

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After three small, dark, and cramped rooms, the museum opens up.  The Paradox of Liberty gallery is a good place to talk with your kids about what liberty truly means.  This exhibit raises tough questions, and the museum does a wonderful job at highlighting these issues and contrasting the words in our founding documents with the reality for enslaved persons.  

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The next few exhibits contain some of the most important artifacts in the museum, including Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s shawl. 

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There are heartbreaking stories about separated families and also courageous stories about resilience and hope in the struggle for emancipation.  I encourage you to take your time in these galleries if you have older children.

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Even younger children can comprehend the conditions of the displayed slave cabin and can understand the struggle for freedom.  

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After the exhibits that take you through the Civil War years and Reconstruction, you will come to the end of this floor.  Continue up the ramp to the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom galleries.  There is a movie shown in the small theater on the ramp that I encourage you to watch as you make your way up.

These galleries contain some hands-on activities that really help your children understand this challenging time after Reconstruction.  Note that some of the pictures in the first gallery on the Jim Crow era and the Emmett Till Memorial are for mature eyes only.  With younger children, I recommend heading straight to the interactive lunch counter, where you can sit on bar stools and play an interactive electronic choose your own adventure game.  I love when museums provide hands-on ways for kids to learn history!

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I also recommend visiting the segregated rail car which shows the stark difference in travel for African Americans.  As you leave this floor and head up the ramp, don’t miss the Tuskegee airplane above your head!

The last floor in the history gallery contains the exhibit, A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.  There are some amazing artifacts here including items from the Obama administration.  The Events of ‘68 gallery is especially powerful.

As you leave the history galleries, don’t miss the entrance to the contemplative court, which will be on your right immediately after the exit.  Be sure to let your children know that this water feature serves as a quiet and reverent place of reflection.

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After the heaviness of the history galleries, I recommend taking a little snack break at the excellent Sweet Home Cafe on this same level.  The food here is delicious, including my favorite treat – banana pudding!

Don’t miss the exhibit on the building of the museum as you walk to the escalators.  It contains a small model of the museum that kids love to see!

If you feel refreshed after a snack, head up the escalator to the top floor to explore the culture galleries.  These include highlights from African American achievements in music, theater, TV, and film.  There is a lot to see here but it goes quickly, depending on your children’s interests.  

Take the escalator down a level to the Community galleries.  For sports enthusiasts, I recommend seeing the sports gallery.  Your kids can see sports highlights and memorabilia and pose with statues of their favorite players, including Michael Jordan.

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I also recommend seeing the Making a Way Out of No Way gallery to learn more about African American education through the years.  

As you head back down the escalator, you can explore the 2nd level Explore More galleries.  These galleries contain a lot of interactive and hands-on activities for all ages. There are also two movies on the main floor that you can see.

Before you leave the museum, don’t miss the extensive gift shop, which contains hundreds of books, toys, and other fun items for kids.  We spent a lot of time here!

While massive and overwhelming, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is an important place that every American should visit.  It brings to life hard but important topics from America’s past and gives parents the space to learn and discuss these important events with our children.  Make plans to visit on your next trip to DC!

 

Helpful hints:

 

Books to Read (continually updated): 

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