Lincoln’s top hat. The flag that inspired the national anthem. It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to be so close to these artifacts. You can see them at the National Museum of American History, an incredible museum encompassing nearly all of American history.
Like our parents’ attic, this museum collects, preserves, and displays the American culture and heritage. And it does this in exhibits curated to help us examine our social, political, cultural, scientific and military history.
Housed within the National Museum of American History are three floors full of information about how our nation was founded and how it developed and grew. If you’re looking for history of mechanical devises? You’ll find it here. If you’re looking for the history of food culture? You’ll find it here. And pop culture, transportation history, presidential history, and more. So much more. From the spangled flag to suffrage movement, this museum is a treasure trove of remarkable national artifacts.
It’s cliched to say the National Museum of American History is like exploring our grandparents’ attic and barn, but it’s true. There’s literally everything there from our history, our wars, our evolving culture.
That’s why this is a museum that everyone should experience at least once.
Getting Your Bearing
You’ll want to see the big ticket exhibits, of course. These include Lincoln’s Hat, the Star Spangled Banner (the one Francis Scott Key was looking at when he wrote the song), and the John Bull Locomotive.
As appropriate, the Star Spangled Banner is in the center — really the heart — of the museum, immediately opposite the National Mall entrance. An interactive display nearby features a digital reproduction of the flag that allows you to learn more about it by touching different areas on the flag.
A landmark object anchors each museum wing on the three exhibition floors. These artifacts highlight the theme of that wing. Around the atrium, themed artifact walls focus on the arts; popular culture; business, work and economy; home and family; community; land and natural resources; peopling America; politics and reform; science; medicine; technology; and the United States’ role in the world.
Exhibits Floor By Floor
First Floor / Constitution Ave Entrance: This is where you’ll find the café. There’s also the gold exhibit and virtual reality rides. One of the very fun exhibits is the interactive area where you can stand in front of a screen. The screen would dress you — and you can move around in the clothes. It was fun watching the kids “trying on” different outfits and then dancing and watching themselves as they moved on the screen.
Also on the first floor are the “Places of Invention” and interactive “Object Project” exhibits.
On the second floor / National Mall Entrance: The George Washington statue, sculpted by Horatio Greenough for exhibit in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol and in celebration of the centennial of Washington’s birth, is the signature artifact for the wing that focuses on Elections and One America exhibits.
In fact, the exhibit on American Democracy is particularly timely. This exhibit examines how elections have been held and how campaigns have evolved over the years. Lots of fascinating artifacts in this exhibit, and a reminder how important it is to actively participate in our democracy.
Also on the second floor, the John Bull Locomotive which once rode the rails between Philadelphia and New York City in the 1830s, anchors the transportation history wing.
On the third floor: Clara Barton’s ambulance anchors the military history wing. With the Entertainment exhibits under renovation at the time, the other exhibits that were currently open were “The American Presidency,” where you’ll find Lincoln’s hat, and “First Ladies,” which exhibits the inaugural gowns.
What Not to Miss at the National Museum of American History
I especially appreciated the exhibits on “The Price of Freedom,” which examines America’s military conflicts. Notably, in the Revolutionary War section, you’ll see George Washington’s outfit. But you’ll also see other important artifacts, from later wars and through the nation’s current conflicts. It’s in this section you’ll see a WWII jeep, a chopper from Vietnam, as well as sections of the Berlin Wall.
And as you stroll through the exhibits, you get a real sense of how our national outlook on military conflict changed over the years. As you exit the exhibit, definitely take the time to watch the touching Medal of Honor film.
Also on the third floor, don’t miss Presidential History and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. My favorite exhibit, from the time I was a child, is the First Ladies inauguration gowns. These gorgeous gowns still fascinate me.
On the second floor, don’t miss the “Within these Walls: exhibit. This exhibit features a house that stood on Elm Street in Ipswich MA. A real, whole house that community members saved from demolition in 1963. The exhibit places the history of the house and clues left behind by five families that lived in there in the context of the country’s history over the 200 years of its habitation. This exhibit brings to life how viewpoints and perspectives change.
Favorite Artifacts at the National Museum of American History
Favorite individual artifacts: Clara Barton’s ambulance; the gunboat The Philadelphia; Gen Philip Sheridans’s horse, Winchester (and the connection to the Civil War’s Battle of Cedar Creek); the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter, and Julia Child’s kitchen. Of course, what I really dug is that I knew so much of the history of so many objects simply by writing MidAtlantic DayTrips for a decade. Although seeing Continental Army Lieutenant Colonel Adam Stephen’s waistcoat wasn’t the most impactful artifact, it was cool because I’d visited his home in Martinsburg WV about a year ago.
Despite all the wonderful exhibits, I’m bummed I missed: Red ruby slippers, All in the Family set, the original Kermit muppet, and the rest of the entertainment exhibit, which re-opened in December 2022, several months after our visit. Favorite memory: finding the obscure room of musical instruments and seeing the Stradivari cello and violins as a child. I don’t think that’s currently exhibited — but it might be included in the entertainment exhibit under renovation.
Know Before You Go
The closest Metro stations to the National Museum of American History are the Federal Triangle Metro station, located on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines; the Archives/Navy Memorial station on the Green and Yellow lines; and Smithsonian Station. There is exceptionally limited parking on the street.
The museum offers easy access for strollers and wheelchairs; there are multiple elevators, several shops for souvenirs and gifts, as well as a nice café area. Benches are strategically available throughout to sit and enjoy some of the exhibits.
Plan to spend at least 2 hours if you want to see the highlights. If you want to read and learn about the exhibits, allow yourself at least a half day. It’s almost impossible to absorb everything this museum has to offer in just one day.
Getting there: The museum is located on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue, N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets, Washington, D.C.
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., including holidays with the exception of December 25
Website: American History Museum
Check out other attractions on the National Mall in the articles below:
- Eisenhower Memorial
- Hirshorn Museum
- National Gallery of Art East Building
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Sculpture Garden
- Smithsonian Castle
- US Botanic Garden
Looking for more great things to see and do in and near DC?