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Notebook Education

Museums to visit—and avoid

(Preston Keres/AFP via Getty Images )


Museums to visit—and avoid

A trip to D.C. provides educational opportunities if you go to the right places

Numerous Christian schools sent buses full of students to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., last month. Which museum on or adjacent to the National Mall had about 700 students lined up to enter it at 10 a.m. the day before the March? Which had no line and would be a good one for school groups to visit next January, when many will be back for the 48th annual march? Which should schools avoid unless they want a massive dose of ever-changing but always trendy pseudoscience?

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the student groups were lining up, is well worth a visit. The permanent exhibits show how the Nazis multiplied hatred step-by-step: Nuremberg Race Laws, Kristallnacht, ghettoization, killing fields, and gas chambers. The museum plays to eyes and ears: photos of Jewish deportation, oral testimonies from Auschwitz. And a few survived: The museum displays resistance and rescues, liberation of the camps, and video testimonies from those who lived.

School groups next year should also visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a quarter-mile from the ­Holocaust Museum. The history section notes not only the familiar uprisings like Nat Turner’s, but little-known ones like the Natchez Revolt of 1729 and the New York Conspiracy of 1741. It shows how slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries was a tragedy in the North as well as the South: “By 1664 New York City had more enslaved residents than any other city in North America. Forty-three percent of the city’s households depended upon enslaved domestic servants and laborers.” 

One exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Limits of Freedom,” shows the contradictions in the man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but removed two-thirds of those basics from the 600-plus slaves he owned. Jefferson’s attitude was like that of the person lampooned by hymn-writer William Cowper: “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves … but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?”

Overall, the museum’s three floors of history steer clear of the propagandistic approach of The New York Times’ “1619 Project” and recognize the importance of Christianity. Harriet Tubman’s hymnal has with it this explanation: “A fiercely religious woman, Tubman spoke of visions and dreams that helped provide a moral compass throughout her life. The wear and tear on this hymnal suggests that she must have loved it and used it quite frequently.” 

Other references to Christianity show how slave owners sometimes used parts of the Bible to intimidate their “property,” but slaves perceived the ennobling and comforting essence. Ex-slave Elizabeth Rose Hite recalled, “We had our own church in the brick yard way out in the field. We hid behind the bricks and had church every night.” Olaudah Equiano gained his freedom in 1766 and later offered this challenge: “O ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you—Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” 

SADLY, BECAUSE IT CONTAINS always-in-style dinosaur bones, the museum to skip is the National Museum of Natural History, two-fifths of a mile east of the African American museum. That’s because the NMNH is too fashionable, always trying to drum into impressionable heads both the basic evolutionary message and the crisis du jour. 

I wrote five years ago about the museum’s hyper-Darwinism. “Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion,” one exhibit banners. “Come meet your relatives,” including “One of Your Oldest Relatives: Morganucodon oehleri.” But the museum cheats by propagandizing for macroevolution from Morgan (who was 4 inches long) to humans while largely providing microevolution examples: “As Habitats Changed, So Did Giraffes.” 

Of course over time giraffes with longer necks would have an advantage over short-necked ones. That’s not where the dispute lies: The argument is about who made giraffes.  

But while the evolutionary sleight-of-hand continues, the particular crisis has changed. Five years ago the emphasis was on pollution. Now it’s on—no surprise—climate change. We’re told, “Climate Change Impacts Daily Lives. Imagine your whole country disappearing under the ocean because of rising sea levels.” NMNH goes beyond the evidence to assert that “current climate change is primarily caused by humans … by driving our cars, heating and cooling buildings, powering industrial plants, and even making concrete.”

We can now blame epidemics on climate change: “Ecological and climate changes caused by humans increase our exposure to infected animals. … When people change an environment, they interact with animals and their viruses in new ways. … It’s not too late to avoid disaster, but we are running out of time. … Never in the entire 200,000-year history of our species have we faced the prospect of such rapid climate change.”

And yet, an irony lurks here. In an exhibit on “Climate, Evolution, and Survival,” NMNH tells us: “During the period of human evolution, Earth’s climate fluctuated between moist and dry, warm and cool. The challenge of surviving during these times of change shaped the course of human evolution. … The characteristics that make us human evolved over 6 million years as our ancestors struggled to survive during times of dramatic climate change.” So could climate change, by forcing humans to become super-­human, be a good thing?


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Tue, 02/25/2020 05:02 am

    The title of this piece seems a bit misleading, and unfortunate. Two of the three that you review are part of the Smithsonian Museum system. Many are on “The Mall”. Others are very close and well worth the walk, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Postal Museum. And what about the Air and Space Museum!? It is on the other side of the Mall. I could go on and on.

    SI’s web site lists 19 museums in all. Though there are a couple on the list that could easily be ignored, most are worth a visit. And the art museums just a few steps down the street, though not a part of the SI, are absolutely incredible!!!

    Did I mention that most are FREE?

    I agree that the NMNH is an evolutionary propaganda feast. But that being said, with the right mindset, there is much worth viewing in this vast FREE museum. I find that it ends up being a great advertisement for alternative theories to evolution when critically examined. But the vast halls, architecture, butterfly exhibit, bees, etc offer much more than presented in this article. 

    To only mention these 3 museums is unfortunate at best. BUT more importantly to only mention these is very misleading for someone who has never visited DC or the FREE Smithsonian Museums. 

    And take the Metro (subway) to get there. This allows one to park on the outskirts and thus avoid the traffic, parking issues and one way streets.


  •  Soapbxn's picture
    Posted: Tue, 02/25/2020 12:24 pm

    Thank you for the additional information!!! 

  •  Dave Waldrup's picture
    Dave Waldrup
    Posted: Tue, 02/25/2020 06:38 am

    I might suggest an obvious musuem choice while in DC - the musuem of the Bible. As a docent there I enjoy giving tours to interested folks every week. Visitors are amazed at the scope, breadth of artifacts and technology in this 430.000 square foot, seven story  tribute to the most influential collection of writings in the history of the world. Come and engage with the Bible and  find out for yourself why it is the world's best seller.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Tue, 02/25/2020 04:28 pm


    Thanks for mentioning this museum. I've not been, partly because it costs at least $20/person. I suspect it is worth it. But the entrance of about $20/each plus additional extras can easily bring two adults to a total of $80. I find that a bit cost prohibitive.

    To my point there is so much available that is free it is a shame to not take advantage of these. To not go to the NMNH because of the evolutionary propaganda is to miss some incredible exhibits. And, as I noted, you would miss seeing some of the silliness that masquerades as science.