Smithsonian Institution: All of history in bits and pieces

TAKING THE KIDS

August 01, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- I voted for Howdy Doody.

We were standing under the original Star-Spangled Banner -- the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem -- in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, arguing (good-naturedly, for a change) over where to head first.

Should we seek Oscar the Grouch or try out a high-wheel bicycle? Eat an old-fashioned sundae in the turn-of-the century Palm Court ice cream parlor or look for the huge steam locomotive engine? What about all the dinosaur bones next door? The Wright brothers' Flyer? Space ships? A moon rock?

Howdy Doody, the wooden marionette responsible for some of my earliest TV memories, evoked a blank stare and a "Come on, mom!" from my kids. Who could blame them? There were so many things they wanted to see: an Apollo command module, Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," an insect zoo where they could see tarantulas being fed.

There were more choices than even Disney World offered. But then again, there's no place in the world like the Smithsonian Institution -- and it's free!

We were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place. It's the world's largest museum complex, with 16 museums (including the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York), the National Zoo (home of Hsing-Hsing the panda) and more than 137 million artifacts, from a 12-ton stuffed African elephant to Henry Ford's Model T.

There's plenty designed especially for kids -- you just have to know where to look. The National Museum of American History has a first-rate Hands-on History Room, where kids can do everything from sending a message by telegraph to ginning cotton to trying on Colonial clothes (located on the second floor and open noon to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.)

Next door, the National Museum of Natural History has a Discovery Room, where kids can explore boxes filled with minerals, stroke a snake skin and feel a fossil print (open noon-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekends).

Ask at the information desk when you arrive about special programs or activities that day for children. Even better, write or call in advance ( [202] 357-2700). That's No. 1 on the Smithsonian's "Ten Tips for Visiting." The Smithsonian Information Center offers free "Planning Your Smithsonian Visit" packages packed with tips. Here are some others:

* Wear comfortable shoes and clothes.

* Don't spend hours driving around searching for a place to park. Take the Metro. And make the Smithsonian Information Center your first stop (less than a block away from the Metro stop). Another option is the Tourmobile, the only commercial sightseeing service authorized to operate on the National Mall.

* Take advantage of recorded tours and free ones led by guides in the museums.

* Don't plan to do it all in one day . . . or even two. With kids, be prepared to see less.

Talk about what you'd like to see ahead of time and be prepared, if you can, to split up. My mother and I, with 7-year-old Regina and 2-year-old Melanie in tow, happily headed for the exhibit of the first ladies' gowns while 9-year-old Matt and my husband scoped out the Revolution ary War memorabilia.

It's easy to take a break and then go back for more, especially in summer. We found the 2-mile-long Mall between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument the perfect antidote to Smithsonian-going. Nine of the museums, including Natural History, American History and Air and Space, are located on the Mall. (This summer they are open 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. so you can come early -- before the museums get crowded -- or stay late after the hoards leave.) The National Postal Museum joined in on the extended hours on July 30. It's the first museum devoted to postal history and stamp collecting.

"When you go to the Smithsonian, bring a Frisbee or a picnic lunch," suggests longtime Washingtonian Beth Rubin, author of "Frommer's Washington, D.C., With Kids" (Prentice Hall, $17), who spent many weekends here shepherding her two kids around as they were growing up. "Buy a kite in the museum shop. When they start to get nudgy, go outside and do something for pure pleasure."

The antique carousel on the Mall (just opposite the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building) cured the crabbiness our family. At less than $1 a ride, I didn't hesitate when the kids begged to ride again -- and again. I guess it beat Howdy Doody.

+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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