Sunday, December 31, 2023

National Museum of American History

Happy New Year! Though my grandparents live only an hour and a half from Washington DC, I have only been to the nation's capital twice. Both of these were summer days above 90 degrees, so we spent more time sheltering in the various museums instead of walking around the city. The first museum I ever visited in DC was the National Museum of American History, and it's still one of my favorites. This post is not a representation of all that DC has to offer, just a look at the theme park-related artifacts in the Museum of American History. But I don't want to come across as distilling such a serious and complex museum into the trivial topic of theme parks! I just want to showcase the most interesting aspects that are related to this blog's theme. :-)
The Herbert C. Hoover Building houses the White House Visitor Center and is the former home of the National Aquarium, but it is most notable as the location of the US Department of Commerce.
The Capitol Building is partly hidden by a cloud of humidity, but I mainly wanted to capture the Post Office building on the right. Built in 1891, I believe that its tower and general design are directly copied from Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Courthouse, which was completed in 1888 and sparked legions of imitations.
We have arrived at the museum!
I instantly bypassed every other (less important) artifact in the museum to visit Kermit the Frog and Sam. Along with Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, the original Muppets sit at the entrance to the museum's new "Entertainment Nation" exhibit.
The collection is obviously a sight to behold, with everything from Prince's guitar to Archie Bunker's chair, but I'll just leave you with a picture of this original Steamboat Willie sketch from 1928.
This 15-foot-tall stained glass window of RCA mascot Nipper was originally part of the RCA Tower in Camden, NJ. The building has been converted into condominiums but still features large windows identical to this one, so I believe this window is an original that was replaced. It appears that the building has had three sets of windows over the years.
Lincoln's tophat is something that everyone knows is in this museum, and I have to include a picture of it in this post. Lincoln wore this tophat on the night of his assassination.
Built in 1831, the John Bull locomotive is one of the museum's most treasured artifacts. It even made a visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition because it was still historic 130 years ago!
In 1981, the Smithsonian famously revived the locomotive once again, allowing it to claim the title of oldest operable steam locomotive in the world. Perhaps they will attempt that again someday...
The museum even included a small temporary exhibit on the Disney parks. No large artifacts were displayed, but I was still happy to see this.
The exhibit uses Disneyland and Walt Disney World to examine wider American history, culture, and values. These "map panes" flip over to reveal text on the other side, but they needed WD-40 bad!
This old Magic Kingdom map was displayed next to a vintage Disneyland Fun Map, and I love how Tomorrowland is startlingly sparse compared to the west side of the park. Soon Space Mountain would fill the void!
It appears that the curators allowed people to submit their old family photos for inclusion in the display.
I have a neighbor who visited Walt Disney World in 1976, and she still remembers all the details of America on Parade. Unfortunately, they failed to include the "People of America" and their oversized heads in this pennant!
The exhibit was mostly just ephemera, but there were a few pieces of artwork. Here is a World's Fair souvenir record and a complimentary ticket for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
The strip of Disneyland Railroad tickets is pretty neat, especially since it lists a never-built Holidayland station as a stop. I would have a hard time surrendering these detailed tickets for a ride on the Railroad! 
Out of view of this shot, the "Adventureland to Frontierland" ticket says "no shooting buffalo from train," and the "Main St. to Adventureland" ticket reads "elephants check trunks with baggageman." Adventureland Station?! I'm confused.
It is pretty amazing that we live in a time when a Splash Mountain poster from 1992 is worthy of display behind glass in the Smithsonian Institution.
Fess Parker's Davy Crockett coonskin cap is placed alongside a charming piece of Mary Blair concept art in this case.
I don't know how rare this ticket is, but it's a neat souvenir.
"Vice President Nixon" took a carefree joyride on the TWA Moonliner on August 11, 1955, less than a month after the park opened. That's kind of prophetic I guess! This display case also contained a model of the Moonliner.
Given the theme of the exhibit, this souvenir from the Hall of Chemistry was presented with a plaque explaining how Monsanto was thought of differently in the 1950s.
Every sign and label in the exhibit was presented in both English and Spanish.
The exhibit explores how Pirates of the Caribbean has changed over time, and it features this Marc Davis sketch that crystallizes what was different about the Pirates ride of 1967 compared to today.
I do not know who drew this sketch, but it shows Benjamin Franklin's print shop in the American Adventure at EPCOT, an element that apparently did not make it into the final version of the show.
Different examples of patriotic souvenirs were included in the display as well, as the Town Square flat retreat is a tradition at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
In any case, it was not the most impressive exhibit by any means (especially compared to everything else in the museum), but I still got a lot of enjoyment out of it.
Here's an example of how the museum overwhelms you with amazing artifacts: Davy Crockett's "ceremonial hatchet" next to a large axe used in the 1860 election. Other examples are William Clark's compass, Teddy Roosevelt's chaps, FDR's Fireside Chat microphone, and the pen LBJ used to sign the Civil Rights Act, all in the same display case!
To finish, here are some shots of the impressive America on the Move exhibition (sponsored by General Motors). You may have noticed that every picture so far in this post can be connected to the Disney parks in some way... :-)
The exhibit includes many lifelike static figures that I admittedly took for real people on a few occasions.
In some ways, it's a tad unsettling... but still cool!
There's even a mock-up of a station on the Chicago L in addition to many other tableaux. I hope you enjoyed this quick trip through the National Museum of American History, and know that there is so much more than what I chose to showcase in the post! Like the original Star Spangled Banner from 1814 (strictly no photos allowed)! It goes without saying that this is a museum that is definitely worth a visit for anybody.


Nanook said...

It's an understatement to say the Disney exhibit was "... not the most impressive..." ; but it's something, anyway. And there are a few interesting items on-display, nonetheless.

Thanks, Andrew.

Andrew said...

Nanook, I hoped it would have more to it, but it is a disappointment coming from the Smithsonian. They used to have a Dumbo car on display in the museum, but I guess that had to be returned to Disney.

JB said...

Hey! I remember seeing that earliest version of Kermit on TV (black & white) back in the late 1950s. I was only 6 or 7 at the time but I remember one of the skits vividly. It involved Kermit seeing a worm crawl along next to him, him snatching it and eating it. This repeated several times until a worm he tried to snatch turned out to be a monster with a very long worm-like nose. Not sure how it ended... did Kermie get eaten? [gasp!]

Interesting how the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey is now in the public domain.

I've read that Nipper the dog is listening to the voice of his master who had passed away recently. Not sure if that's true, but I choose to believe it.

The Magic Kingdom map: OMG! There are only two teacups on the Orlando teacup ride! And two Dumbi on their Dumbo ride! The queues for those rides must wrap all the way around the Park!

America on Parade: Andrew, you weren't born yet, but people actually did have oversized heads back in 1976. It was necessary to balance out the oversized shirt collars and oversized flared pant legs.

Did Major Pepperidge show us one of those aqua-colored coin trays on GDB? It sure looks familiar.

The tail on Davy's coonskin cap is a little fluffier in the B&W photo. I suspect there were many of these hats worn on the sets of various Disney shows, and this is but one of them. It still looks good after all these years.

PotC artwork: I miss the wenches.

All the static statues remind me of the old (original) Twilight Zone series. There were several episodes that involved people standing still like statues, for whatever reason.

Thank you, Andrew.

Andrew said...

JB, I'm surprised that you remember that early Muppet skit from so many years ago! You have a photographic memory.

As soon as January 1st hit, so many YouTube channels posted Steamboat Willie on YouTube. Crazy!

That's a neat idea about Nipper, but it also sounds like it could be a rumor. I want it to be true though!

The Magic Kingdom map is super simple but it's nice! Thanks for finally explaining why America on Parade had the oversized heads. Everything makes so much more sense now.

I wouldn't be surprised if Major posted the tray on GDB previously!

Maybe they grabbed the coonskin cap off a rack in the museum gift shop!

I can see the Twilight Zone resemblance in the static figures. Thanks for the comment, JB.

TokyoMagic! said...

Well, if the Smithsonian would only get rid of things like Lincoln's hat and those silly trains, they would have room for more "Disney" stuff.

I've been in the National Museum of American History, but it was back in the 90s. The building doesn't look familiar to me, but I just checked and apparently it received a major $85 million renovation from 2006 to 2008, and another $37 million renovation and additional wing in 2012. I also don't remember many of these items. Maybe that is because I made a beeline straight towards Fonzie's jacket, and stood there staring at it until the museum closed.

Actually, I do remember seeing Archie Bunker's chair, Mr. Roger's sweater, the collection of all the First Ladies' inaugural dresses, and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write, "The Star-Spangled Banner." I think I saw Kermit, too. I remember that the Ruby Slippers were out for a special Smithsonian exhibit which was touring the country, so I didn't get to see them. Or try them on.

I think it's nice that they made some kind of effort to do a Disneyland and WDW exhibit. It's too bad that they don't have some larger items. I remember hearing a rumor that they were going to get one of the spinning "bugs" from the Main Street Electrical Parade, after it's "Farewell Season" in 1996. I guess that didn't happen. Maybe Disney realized they needed to keep it for all of those future "Farewell Season" performances.

I have two of those complimentary "Child Admission" tickets for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which I've kept since childhood. Unfortunately, I detached them from their ticket books, at some point. The things that kids will do!

Thank you for sharing your museum visit with us, Andrew! I enjoyed visiting it again, even if only vicariously, all of these years later.

Andrew said...

TokyoMagic!, I completely agree! Who needs to see Lincoln’s tophat when you can see a “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” LP record?

From what I understand, the museum was a lot darker before the renovation, and they added a large central atrium during that time. I’m sure that the items on display are mostly different than they were back then. Fonzie’s jacket was not in the entertainment exhibit! They did have a Mr. Rogers sweater though. (Pittsburgh also has one at the Heinz History Center, and there’s a small museum in Rogers’ hometown of Latrobe that has a bunch on display.)

What a bummer the Ruby Slippers weren’t available for you to try on when you visited the museum! I've never heard that rumor about the Smithsonian acquiring one of the spinning bugs from the Electrical Parade. That seems like it would take up a lot of space for something that’s not all that historic in the grand scheme of things. Who would have guessed that they would still be running down Main St over 25 years after the “Farewell Season?”

How cool that you still have a few of the child tickets from Mr. Lincoln! I don’t blame you for taking them out of the ticket book. I used to hang up all the maps from my early park visits on my bedroom wall with unnecessarily strong packing tape, and it left huge holes in them when I took the tape off. :-|

TokyoMagic! said...

Yikes! Fonzie's jacket is no longer out on display? I hope they didn't toss it out. I guess they probably have tons of stuff in storage. And I do remember the museum being very dark, back when I went through it. At the time, I thought that was to help prevent "fading" of some of the items. I should check my photos to see what I took pics of. The only items I can remember photographing are the "Star Spangled Banner" flag (that must have been allowed back then) and Martha Washington's inaugural gown. However, I must have taken more pics than just those two.

I'm glad to hear that I wasn't the only child in history, who was destroying or decreasing the future value of important theme park ephemera! ;-)

Andrew said...

TokyoMagic!, the jacket has its own page on the Smithsonian website, and it's listed as "currently not on view," so I'm sure they didn't toss it out! You're right, they don't allow photos of the Star Spangled Banner anymore.

At least we didn't throw our ephemera out! That's the only thing that really matters. That and keeping everything in climate-controlled cases under bulletproof glass

"Lou and Sue" said...

I love this walk through the museum with you, Andrew. Though the Disney exhibit is slightly anemic, all the comments more than make up for it.

"I remember hearing a rumor that they were going to get one of the spinning "bugs" from the Main Street Electrical Parade, after its "Farewell Season" in 1996. I guess that didn't happen. Maybe Disney realized they needed to keep it for all of those future "Farewell Season" performances."

"Oversized heads" - arg!!!!

"There are only two teacups on the Orlando teacup ride! And two Dumbi on their Dumbo ride!"

"They used to have a Dumbo car on display in the museum, but I guess that had to be returned to Disney."
....or to Mike C.

I love the Chicago L picture, of course.

Thanks for another interesting and fun post, Andrew.

Andrew said...

Sue, I'm glad you still enjoyed the post and the comments. I'm assuming you noticed the small text on the one sign in the Disney exhibit that all the items were "on loan from Mike Cozart." ;-) I knew you would appreciate the picture of the L!

Major Pepperidge said...

Andrew, I loved this post, and am sorry that it took me so long to comment - I just got busy, and then (I am ashamed to admit) forgot.

I haven’t been to Washington DC since I was about 13 years old, but I LOVED visiting the various museums - and of course the National Museum of American History is one of the best. Your blog post and photos are great!

The displays you feature are awesome, who doesn’t love those early Muppets? Steamboat Willie, thumbs up; and wow, that RCA stained glass window, amazing and beautiful.

I remember seeing some of those artifacts during my visit (before you were born), such as Abe’s stovepipe hat; looking at the Disney park items they have on display, I couldn’t help feeling very snooty, since I have examples of most of them! Not the original artwork, of course. Sadly.

Those weirdly blank mannequins should be in a horror move - imagine if one of them slowly turned its head to “glare” at you. Can one glare with no eyes?

Thanks for the fun look at the NMAH!

Andrew said...

Major, no need to apologize! I never expect anyone to comment. I'm sure the museum is unrecognizable from when you were 13, but like you said, some of the artifacts are the same. Of course, you could start a Disneyland museum of your own that would be many times better than this little exhibit! There are so many mannequins in the transportation exhibit that I was just waiting for one to turn its head. :-0 I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


Andrew : that American Adventure development sketch of Franklin’s Print shop was done by imagineer CLEM HALL …. Who also did the 1975 and on versions of the Haunted Mansion stretching portraits. Clem Hall was a master painter who had a background in formal portrait painting … then was a studio artist in Hollywood before coming to WED in the very early 70’s . At Disney Clem did lots of well used and published images of Walt Disney Worlds new Tomorrowland, Disneyland Space mountain and big thunder mountain railroad for both parks . He was a master at arial views and is probably most remembered for his Birds Eye view of EPCOT CENTER.

One thing I’m am dumbfounded about is that this is a Smithsonian exhibit and that Marc Davis rendering is a know fake!!