Taking a Closer Look: City Museum of Washington DC

Sunday, August 17th
City Museum of DC
801 K Street, NW

After a short Metro ride from the orange to the red line, I hopped off at Gallery Place and walked three blocks to a small building – the City Museum of D.C. The museum, which opened in May, looks like a tiny baby compared to the big mama Smithsonian that most D.C. natives are used to seeing. The museum is run by the D.C. Historical Society, which has compiled its collections to provide a view of D.C. beyond the government, White House and security. I scratched my head, wondering what exactly is beyond politics in D.C. But I paid my $2 entrance fee and was ready to find out.

I entered the first exhibit room. This is by far the busiest exhibit with the most information crammed into one room from the ceiling to the floor. Even on a Sunday afternoon, the museum wasn’t crowded at all, so luckily I never had to wait. As I entered the room, I noticed the few people crouching down, finger tips to the floor, trying to find their office or home on the huge map that also serves as the floor. I decided to be a crouching tiger too and quickly found H Street, GW and, finally, New Hall.

I then started out at one side of the perimeter looking at pictures of the Pentagon. Without another inch, I was moved to the Kennedy center. In a total of 30 feet, I had moved from Pentagon to the Kennedy Center to Martin Luther King and civil rights to the fight for the metro to music. Phew, that was more information than one of Sodaro’s political science lectures. But that wasn’t it-I started the same walk of information all over, because although it was only 30 feet, it was filled, practically busting from the seams with more information. I still had to open all of the drawers below the displays to find even more info. The drawers were stacked three high and were filled with even more display subjects.

While most museums are filled with memorabilia and donated items, the City Museum is filled with prints of photographs and quotes. This room was more like an open encyclopedia than a museum.

Next up were little interactive displays-I stepped through the first door that took me to1790-1860, the second door to 1861-1900, then the third door to 1901-1945 and finally one to “since 1946.” Each time I stepped back into the past I learned about Congressmen living in male boarding houses, the development of the city and when the right to vote in Presidential races was finally granted to D.C. residents.

Walking back into the present, I was first taken by the section put aside for music in the District. Go-go is the only completely home-grown D.C. music, I found out. Hungry for a little more, I searched in the drawers beneath, but they were full of pictures of the formation of the Dupont neighborhood. A little to the right was a display featuring performers on U Street, also known as the “Black Broadway.” A little to the left, I found an ear piece to hear Chuck Brown’s 1979 hit “Bustin’ Loose.”

Wait a second-where is GW in this stew of facts? Finally I found it stuck between a stack of other educational tidbits. “Washington petitioned Congress to establish a university in the federal district. Their efforts resulted in Columbian College (now the George Washington University) chartered in 1821.” My thirst for something GW in this mosh-posh was quenched.

I climbed up the stairs to see what else the museum had in store for me. The first room was filled with hand-drawn maps of the District. I was bored. You can only find where you live on a map so many times. I quickly moved through that room to the other of the two exhibits on the second floor. First I looked through an exhibit called “Sandlots to Stadiums,” a timeline of sports in the District. This was actually the most interesting part of the museum. The display wasn’t half as cluttered and had some actual organization to it. From horse racing to cycling to football, I learned all about how residents made room for some weekend entertainment.

Moving on to more football and baseball, I bypassed the pictures of high school teams and letter jackets and found the “Fans’ Scoreboard,” where visitors could leave their own comments about their memories of sports in D.C. It was filled with stories about playing kickball, sneaking into the stadium to watch the Senators play in the fifties and the segregation of area playgrounds. One visitor wrote about how he remembered white students sticking their tongues out at him while he stared into their playground while they played basketball and tennis. With all of the facts about the Redskins and the now-defunct Senators, that simple piece of paper was the most interesting in the entire exhibit.

It occurred to me that this is what the museum was missing. With all the information thrown out at visitors, the meaning behind it was missing-D.C. is a city that has always been split. Split between parties, races, schools, teams and neighborhoods. In a city where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone with an opinion, the political side of D.C. was missing. Where was the White House? Where was the building of the Capitol? Where were the presidents? These are integral parts of D.C., helped to shape the city, yet they were left out.

After walking through the three exhibits I left the small museum with a little bit of information on a lot of subjects, but still unsatisfied. I walked through the newly developed Chinatown and made my way back to the Metro, which, thanks to the D.C. City Museum, I know was almost replaced with a system of highways.

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