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Taking the Kids: Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Ready to take a spin? Kids were lining up for the chance to "drive" the shiny red convertible At the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), but what they didn't realize was that their ride would be a meaningful teaching tool about the era of segregation in the United States. While on their "drive," kids are given cues and asked to make choices as to which way they should go. They're also faced with potential consequences should they choose the wrong road.

"Much better than a classroom," suggested a retired teacher from Brooklyn visiting with a 7 year old.

The car is a centerpiece exhibit in "Explore More! Gallery" at the NMAAHC's interactive, technologically driven space that also included an interactive lunch counter to learn about the civil rights sit-ins and a chance to join a virtual step show.

Since the museum opened Sept. 24, 2016 on the National Mall, next to the Washington Monument, nearly 3 million people have visited the 12 inaugural exhibitions featuring more than 3,000 artifacts, including slave shackles, Harriet Tubman's hymnal, a segregated Southern Railway used in the Jim Crow-era South, Chuck Berry's red Cadillac and costumes from "The Wiz." During its inaugural year, the museum increased the number of items in its permanent collection to nearly 40,000 and hosted more than 40 public programs to help visitors better understand the historic and cultural issues impacting us today.

The museum is celebrating its birthday big time with special Community Day celebrations (and extended hours the weekend of Sept 23-24), as well as a social media campaign -- join the conversation at (HASHTAG)VisitorVoices.

You will have lots of company. The NMAAHC, which is nearly 400,000 square feet, has become the nation's largest and most comprehensive destination for exploring and displaying the African-American story. According to the Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, it's the hottest ticket in town.

(Admission is free but to guarantee admission, you will want to reserve timed passes. These passes, purchased in advanced, are offered on a monthly basis, so, for example, those released on Oct. 4 will be for January 2018. There is also a limited number of same-day online passes released starting at 6:30 a.m. and walk-up passes at 1p.m. weekdays on the Madison Drive side of the building.)

Washington, D.C., is a great bet with kids because there are so many free museums and historical sites literally on every corner, including the African American Heritage Trail, offering more than 200 sites, the pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo or a visit to your congressman's office. (Find a lot more ideas in the new edition of my Kid’s Guide to Washington, D.C.) On Oct. 12, Phase 1 of The Wharf opens with 15 restaurants and three hotels, all within walking distance of the National Mall. The Wharf is a $2 billion renovation of DC's southwest waterfront with lots of space for families to play.

But any visit to Washington, D.C., and especially a huge museum like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, may require some prep work for parents, museum educators suggest. Certainly a visit here provides the opportunity to have conversations with children about tolerance, as well as equality, inclusion and fairness.

Use the museum's collection of objects and stories -- whether it is Harriet Tubman's shawl to talk about a woman who embodied courage or learning about integration through the life of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues -- to help children explore how people, often ordinary everyday people, have made choices in history to stand up to injustice.

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