Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Felicity's 4th of July in Washington, DC

Where else can you see the actual Declaration of Independence on America’s birthday?

Is there a better place to celebrate the Fourth of July than Washington, DC? I don’t think so, especially not after the awesome day I had yesterday! Washington in the summer is hot, crowded, and often plagued by metro problems (although that’s definitely not just a summer problem), but if you can make it down to the nation’s capital for the Fourth? I think it’s worth it. 

Why? Well, I’ve got some cool programs to tell you about.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the National Archives. At 10, they had a huge celebration and ceremony for the Declaration of Independence, including live music and reenactors portraying historical figures like John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Ben Franklin, and George Washington, along with a few other faces that are a little less iconic for most non history buffs. The reenactors read the Declaration aloud to the public in front of the Archives on the Constitution Avenue side, and the crowd was encouraged to loudly cheer or boo different parts of the document. It was a lot of fun, and definitely one of the best oral renditions of the Declaration I’ve ever seen, including a reading at Williamsburg.

The National Archives is also host to a lot of fun, family friendly programming inside their museum. The one downside? Everyone is down on Constitution Avenue waiting to see the parade, or wanting to go inside the Archives museum to get a look at the Declaration. On the plus side, NARA’s staff is very good at crowd control and manage to keep the museum from feeling too crowded. The downside of this means that when it’s really, really crowded, the line gets super long and they stop letting people into the building. You can be standing in the direct sunlight for upwards of forty-five minutes, which needless to say is pretty unpleasant. 

But once you’re inside, I would highly recommend heading up to the Boeing Learning Center to participate in the activities they’ve got set up! The Learning Center is the one place in the National Archives’ building where you can take pictures, and I was told this program is pretty similar year after year.

I was given a booklet with information about each of the historical figures represented by a reenactor and spaces for them to sign. Kids (and any adults who wanted to play along) were encouraged to collect signatures from the reenactors, and could take photos with them as well. I was especially excited to see John and Abigail Adams, as they’re my favorite historical figures from the Revolutionary period and I’ve never had an opportunity to chat with people portraying them before. 

I also made sure to get Felicity a picture with fellow Virginian from Williamsburg Thomas Jefferson. Both he and Mrs. Adams said they thought my blog sounded like a great idea, which made me feel a little like a kid meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time and having him tell me I’m good at drawing, if you know what I mean. 

All of the reenactors were very true to character, very knowledgeable, and great with kids of all ages who went to talk to them. I saw some students from UVA who were very excited to meet Jefferson and take their picture with him, and multiple people said it was like being at Historical Disneyland.

In addition to these meet and greets, you could listen to the Founders tell stories throughout the day, or participate in a number of other Revolutionary inspired activities. You could set your name in type like you would if you were using a printing press, make a colonial wig out of a paper bag (super cool activity!), dress up in colonial clothes, write with a quill pen, and even sign the Declaration of Independence!

The Boeing Learning Center in general is a great place to bring kids to learn more about what the Archives does, and hosts other great programs throughout the year. I know most people think to go into the Rotunda to see the Declaration and Constitution and then pop out to rush off to a Smithsonian, but if you’ve got younger family members, definitely pop in and see what programs they’ve got going on. The staff is friendly and eager to teach future historians and archivists about the role of the National Archives in DC and around the country. 

After you’re done at the Archives, you’re likely going to be hungry and tired. As much as I like the Archives’ museum and the Learning Center, I can’t in good faith recommend the café at NARA. If you’re in DC for the Fourth, I would recommend heading across the street onto the National Mall and supporting the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, something I’m going to talk about more in detail later. 

It’s always hosted for two weeks with the Fourth smooshed in the center and there are vendors stationed along the Mall selling tasty treats you can enjoy at picnic tables under the trees. My friend Jenna and I stopped at the vendor selling Irish pub grub and got fish and chips, which was super tasty and totally hit the spot.

We popped by the National Museum of American History next. Jenna and I (as well as a lot of our classmates) have spent a lot of time at NMAH over the last year, and we finally got to take a walk through the three new exhibitions that just opened. If you’ve got any interest in the history of democracy, immigration and religion in the United States, you definitely need to check these out. Even if you don’t feel like you have any interest in it, they’re still worth seeing. 

Plus, they have Indiana Jones’s hat and whip on display while they work on conserving the ruby slippers, so that’s pretty awesome too.

Interestingly, NMAH didn’t seem to have any obvious Fourth of July programming like the National Archives did. We weren’t sure if this was because they’ve had a busy month promoting their new exhibitions or not, but they do have extended hours in the summer, so if you’re going to stay for the fireworks, it’s a good place to visit before they start. 

Speaking of fireworks, people start tailgating for the fireworks pretty darn early. Grabbing a prime piece of real estate on the Mall definitely seems like a high priority for Washingtonians and tourists a lot. 

Luckily for my friends and I, we had a hook up this year!

Jenna is working for the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum this summer, and they open their rooftop to any employees or interns and their friends and family looking for a good place to watch the fireworks. I’ve never been to the DAR Museum before, but I’ve heard a lot about it from Jenna, so it was a lot of fun getting a private tour of the building before the fireworks started. 

The museum itself is under construction right now and will be reopened soon, but their period rooms and library are available for the public to see. Each state chapter of the DAR can sponsor a room in the building, and many of them are furnished to represent a wealthy household in that state at a specific moment in time. My two favorite rooms were Virginia and New Hampshire: a dining room and an attic, complete with lots of children’s toys. 

The DAR Museum might be a little off the beaten path for most visitors to DC, but it’s definitely worth a peek inside. And their roof is a pretty unmatched spot to view the fireworks!

Which, by the way, were pretty incredible. I’m a little snobby about fireworks thanks to Disney, but these were a lot of fun to watch and definitely worth the wait. 

So if you’re willing to brave the crowds and the heat, I think I can very safely say that there is no better place to visit on the Fourth of July than Washington, DC. Hope you can join us down here next year!

Hope you had a happy and safe holiday wherever you celebrated!


  1. What a day! I've never been to DC on July 4th, but it looks super fun if you're willing to brave the crowds. Thanks for sharing! I absolutely love your Felicity, by the way. She is gorgeous, and I love her apple butter dress! :)

    1. Thank you! She is always a favorite. It's nice to get her out and involved since DC has so many Revolutionary era events and programming. :)

  2. I'm slightly biased...I'd say Philadelphia, PA. You know, the Continental Congress, writing the Declaration there, Liberty Bell, etc. :-D We usually have a lot going on with regards to that too.

    1. Guess I'll have to head up there sometime soon! I will say the last time I was in Philly I wasn't really impressed, but I'm excited to see the new Museum of the American Revolution. :D

    2. As I said, I'm biased. :) Yes, I am looking forward to going to the new Museum of the American Revolution. The Constitution Center is pretty neat too.

    3. The Constitution Center was one of the places I wasn't especially impressed by, haha. Although we did get to meet President Lincoln, which was pretty fun!

    4. Haha! Maybe it depends on the featured exhibit. I've been twice and liked it both times. I will admit some historic Philly attractions require more reading than walking through the Smithsonian. However, there is so much history throughout the city the walking and segue tours are neat. I love the small parks and museums scattered throughout. Christ church, The Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall are favorites as is The Franklin Institute and Museum of Art and Reading terminal Market.

    5. It's not the reading that bothers me at all! I love to read, and I'm usually the person who has to be at the museum from open to close because I /want/ to read everything. And forgive me for saying so, but I think it's a little dismissive to say that they require more reading than walking around the Smithsonian. The American Enterprise exhibition at NMAH would take the average person three hours to read every single panel, label and sign, and that's one exhibit out of sixteen or so currently ongoing at the museum. For whatever reason, the center just didn't click with me when I was there, and it's meant I'm not really in a hurry to go back.

      I also wasn't super impressed with the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, although I think part of that is that I lived in Boston for four years and grew up visiting the city a lot, so I've been spoiled by the Freedom Trail and the USS Constitution Museum. I personally didn't feel like Philly was as good at preserving its history as Boston, particularly in terms of historic architecture, and was overall just a little bummed/unimpressed because I was sort of expecting it to be very similar to Boston in that regard.

      Plus the Maritime Museum just depressed me because of the issues revolving around preserving the USS Olympia, which is one of the reasons I decided to go back to grad school and continue pursuing museums/history as a profession. It's just so sad hearing about how a city with all this history has this super cool artifact and no one can raise the funds to make sure it has a good home moving forward. That's actually overall probably why I didn't love my visit there as much as I hoped. I think I was a sophomore in college, so like halfway through getting a history degree, and I had never really been faced with something that was truly historically significant that the public basically doesn't care about and that means it's in danger of being lost to history. It's one thing to see a historic home where no one really important lived be torn down, but the Olympia was hugely important during the Spanish American War and has a lot of interesting history both politically/militarily and technologically, as it's the last ship of its kind still in existence. I was so depressed seeing how the public's apathy meant this really cool artifact was being left to literally rot in the harbor even though a few dedicated people are struggling to save it, and overall it was kind of a big loss of innocence moment for me.

      Maybe that's unfair of me, or I'd have a better appreciation as a native of the city, but it just didn't live up to my admittedly high expectations and the Olympia situation kind of soured me on the whole trip. I'd still like to go back, but everything you said about Philly is exactly how I feel about DC and Boston! So we're both biased, haha.

    6. I apologize; you misunderstood my intentions with regarding the reading. I am a reader and I love the Smithsonian. What I was getting at is that the displays leading up to exhibits like the Liberty Bell are mostly photo boards with accompanying items of interest for reading so those who just want to see the bell can get disappointed while every step you take through the Smithsonian is another fabulous display. No dismissive-ness at all. I have coworkers who remarked negatively on our company day trips because they didn't want to have to read their way through an outing.

      Each city is different in how it budgets to preserve the history. As I recall the state of Virginia is selling off important battlefields for strip malls. Every day we lose important bits of our history through lack of funding. It is very sad.

      I have visited many historic areas in our country east, west, north, south (including Boston and DC) and love them all equally for what they teach me about the US.

    7. Oh no worries, sorry for the miscommunication. That does make sense, it's a pain in the butt to deal with when you're concepting an exhibit space. Judging people's interest level on stuff is really hard even for professionals. I was just having a conversation with a coworker about how he hated the way the National WWII Museum was laid out, meanwhile that's one of my favorite places and I think they do a really good job balancing having artifacts, text, and interactive elements all in one space.

      You're totally right about the budgets too, it's such a frustrating problem and I wish I had a better solution to it besides just trying to get people to care about history! And remind them to donate to causes they particularly care about. I dumped my wallet out into the Olympia's donation box when I was there and still try to give to the fund when I've got extra money.

    8. Yes, yes. Exactly. :-) Trying to please everyone is a challenge in every walk of life.

      Every little bit helps. I know the First Speaker's House in Trappe, PA recently got approved for restoration. It's taken years.