November 14, 2021

Museum Review - The Smithsonian

While in DC for the DSL meetup, I hit two museums on the Mall that are likely to be of interest to readers, the Air and Space Museum and the American History Museum.

National Air and Space Museum

Lord Nelson and I with a Lunar Lander (unflown)
Type: Air and space museum
Location: Washington, DC
Rating: 4.3/5, An incredible collection, set up primarily for non-history-buffs, particularly when it's not under construction
Price: Free

The National Air and Space Museum is home to the world's greatest collection of historic air and space craft, ranging from the original Wright Flier (more or less) to the command module for Apollo 11. Pretty much all of the great milestones in aerospace development are represented here, or at the Udvar-Hazy facility at Dulles (which I sadly didn't have time to get to).

So as a result, this should obviously be the first museum to get a 5.0 on my scale, right? Well, no, for several reasons. First and foremost, it's currently under renovation, and two-thirds of it was closed when we visited in October 2021. Actually, the only things open were the main hall, the Spacecraft gallery, the navigation exhibit, and the Wright Flier. Cassander, our local guide, should have known this but didn't. As a result, the trip was cut somewhat short. Second, it comes off to me as a little bland, although this is probably a personal problem. There's something to be said for a Greatest Hits collection, but aviation tends to fall into a strange uncanny valley for me. I've been into it long enough for this kind of stuff to have been beaten to death, but I'm not so deep for it to have wrapped around like it has for ships.1 The museum was definitely pitched at the general public, and at that, it looked very good.

A SINS platform from the navigation exhibit

This isn't to say I didn't have a good time. Cassander and I each took half the group and did improv tours, which meant it was more "hanging out with DSL people" time. There was some cool stuff, with particular highlights being the Vanguard TV-3 satellite and the guidance section from a Minuteman III ICBM, and the Smithsonian did a much better job than most air museums of putting small artifacts on display rather than just filling the whole space with airplanes and maybe a couple of engines. But on the whole, this looked like a better museum for someone who doesn't know much about aviation than for someone who does. That's probably a good thing given where it is and what it does, but it makes me think that this wouldn't be among my top-ranked museums, even if it hadn't been under construction when I went.

I went back to NASM 2022, and while a ton of work had been done in the intervening year, the review here largely stands. It's done extremely well for the general public, and a decent place for enthusiasts. I've also finally gotten to Udvar-Hazy, the facility out at Dulles Airport. It's much better, but a headache to get to.

National Museum of American History

Me with gunboat Philadelphia
Type: American history museum, with strong military and nautical sections
Location: Washington, DC
Rating: 4.4/5, Very well-done, but focused on outsiders, not enthusiasts
Price: Free

Less under construction during our visit was the National Museum of American History. There were two specific exhibits that were worth talking about for Naval Gazing readers, although the whole museum was generally well-done and worth a visit. First, on the top floor, they have a big military history section. At the entrance is the gunboat Philadelphia, sunk at the Battle of Valcour Island and raised in the 1930s. Unfortunately, while it was visible, most of that exhibit was closed off (it's open as of October 2022), but it was still neat to see.

The rest of the exhibit was a high-level tour through American military history from the Colonial Period to the War on Terror. I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, everything looked well-done, and there was a lot of stuff to see. On the other, it was pitched at a general audience and almost painfully conventional in its pacing and focus. Anyone who has even a passing interest in American military history can easily predict exactly the beats that they'll hit, and the sort of artifacts they'll have on display. A lot on the Revolution, a lot on the Civil War, a lot on WWII, a fair bit on Vietnam and small amounts on the stuff in-between. I can't really criticize them for their choices from an objective standpoint. This presentation of American military history is standard to the point of boredom for a reason, and the vast majority of people who come through haven't spent the last 20 years marinating themselves in the field. But the only place I was really surprised was the Spanish-American War section, which was slightly bigger than I expected and gave more emphasis to Santiago than Manila Bay. On the flip side, WWI had no mention of naval power, but it was also much smaller than it deserved, so I'm not going to beat them up too much over that.

Ship models in the maritime exhibit

On the bottom level was a big exhibit on transportation (with the exception of aviation, presumably due to their peace treaty with NASM), which included a very nice exhibit on maritime matters. Again, there wasn't anything extraordinary, but it did a good job of laying out the importance of maritime resources and transport throughout American history. Again, there wasn't anything groundbreaking either in their narrative or their artifacts, but it's a less stale story than the military history stuff, and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. I think they did a better job of broad coverage of the subject, with the exception of offshore oil drilling and maybe the work of the Coast Guard.

Beyond that, the American History museum as a whole was very good. Some sections were better than others (the pop culture section seemed to be in the middle of a renovation and the Girlhoold exhibit seemed optimized to look good on Instagram instead of being good in person) but there was a lot to see, and I would recommend it as a place to visit if you're in DC.

Unlike at certain other museums, I can't fault the curators at either Air and Space or American History for how they handled these exhibits. They did a very competent job of telling the basic stories of the relevant fields, which is exactly what they should do given their massive audiences of people who are mostly just off the street. Given their space constraints, including more stuff for nerds like me would have traded against their ability to speak to the general public. And while I wouldn't necessarily recommend traveling long distances to see either, as I do for places like Dayton and Groton, they're certainly not bad, and worth visiting as part of the package deal that is DC.

World War II Memorial

Before we went to the American History Museum, we also swung by the World War II Memorial, on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It was a brilliant memorial to the men who went and fought the Axis, beautiful and touching. There are quotes from various leaders, and a wall with 4,048 stars on it, each representing 100 Americans killed or missing during the war. Amusingly, on the back of the memorial behind the Pennsylvania and Delaware pillars are "Killroy Was Here" logos, although they're roped off and a bit hard to see. On the whole, I would highly recommend taking the time to pay this memorial a visit if you're in the area.

1 Assuming that is what's happened with ships. The differences between how you interact with a ship and an airplane in a museum context probably have a lot to do with this, too.


  1. November 14, 2021ike said...

    The National Air and Space Museum is home to the world’s greatest collection of historic air and space craft [...]

    I thought that it was Dayton that had the best collection.

  2. November 14, 2021bean said...

    I like Dayton's collection better, but if we're going by sheer historical merit, NASM wins hands down.

  3. November 14, 2021Jason Lees said...

    I know you’re in Oklahoma City, but have you ever made the drive to Hutchison,KS to see the Cosmosphere? Great museum.

  4. November 14, 2021Neal said...

    The American History Museum, had/has a nice tribute to the Merchant Marine efforts in WW2 and the great number of mariners who lost their lives. I imagine it is still there. For some reason this always struck a chord with me as they, and the terrifying theatre(s) of war in which they sailed, are all too often overlooked

    Possible useful tip: I am not sure if the shuttle is in service from the Dulles terminal over to the museum at the moment, but when it is you can save the $15 parking fee...which of course begs the question if you are paying for parking at Dulles itself or have a long wait between flights there.

  5. November 14, 2021bean said...


    Heard about it, haven't gotten there yet. It's on the list at some point.


    I didn't see that memorial, but we were moving pretty fast and it's not a small museum.

    As for Dulles, I really wish I'd know about that shuttle 9 years ago when I was in DC and spent like 6 hours sitting at Dulles nursing a hatred of CNN. For some reason, I though Udvar-Hazy was in Maryland.

  6. November 16, 2021cwillu said...

    The footnote “but I’m not so deep for it to have wrapped around like it has for ships.1” is missing/broken.

  7. November 16, 2021bean said...

    Oops. Fixed now.

  8. November 30, 2021Ian Argent said...

    The line to get into Air & Space on the Friday after thanksgiving was literally around the block. We went to a couple other museums instead.

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