Museums Off the Beaten Path

Jewelry, Civil War-Era Medicine, Jewish Vets Await the Intrepid Museum-Goer

Posted November 13, 2008 at 11:18am

Anxious to hide your rookie status on Capitol Hill? Relax — Roll Call has a way to put you on a par with even the longest-serving Members. You may not have heard of any of the following five museums, but suggest them to any visitor and you are sure to look like a Washington insider.

The Bead Museum

For a unique look into ancient and modern human civilizations, visitors should head to the Bead Museum near the National Archives. Founded in 1995 in conjunction with the Bead Society of Greater Washington, the museum displays an extensive collection of beads as a window into different cultures.

“Sometimes I get people who ask me, ‘What is this?’” said Victor Steele, operations manager of the Bead Museum. “Everything in here is a bead.”

Although the museum occupies only one room on the ground

floor of an office building, the space is packed with beads and resources sure to interest any bead enthusiast.


Capitol Hill Map — Goods, Services and More

Filling a third of the exhibit space is the “Bead Timeline of History,” which is the museum’s only permanent exhibit. Beginning in 10,000 B.C., the timeline displays everything from ancient shell beads from western Asia to a modern bead featuring a portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

“Since humans have been around, they have used beads to adorn themselves, whether it’s for status, celebration or other reasons,” Steele said. The exhibit defines a bead as any object that can be strung to adorn or decorate a person, place or thing.

Another third of the space contains the museum’s temporary exhibit, which currently displays the winners of an international bead design contest that began last November. The exhibit features the first-, second- and third-place winners for each of the contest’s 12 design categories, including organic materials, fiber and textiles, and Swarovski crystal. More than 400 pieces were submitted from places as diverse as Kuwait and Colorado and judged by a panel of five bead and art experts.

A wall of bead, gemstone and jewelry books, a directory of bead stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and a small gift shop occupy the remainder of the museum’s space. With the exception of Steele, the museum is run entirely by volunteers.

Located on the ground floor of the Jenifer Building at 400 Seventh St. NW, the Bead Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Art Museum of the Americas

For those interested in international art, the Art Museum of the Americas provides a more intimate alternative to the National Gallery.

Founded in 1976 by the Organization of American States, the small museum is housed inside the former residence of the OAS secretary general, which was built in 1912.

Beginning Nov. 20, the museum will host “The Disappeared,” a traveling exhibition from the University of North Dakota. The exhibit illustrates the experience of those who were “disappeared” during political upheaval in Central and South America, featuring artists from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Guatemala, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela.

“The subject of human rights is one the key subjects that OAS works with,” said Lydia Bendersky, director of cultural affairs from the OAS. “The theme is also very much in vogue right now.”

The exhibit was displayed at New York’s renowned El Museo del Barrio a year ago.

In addition to the visual arts, the Art Museum of the Americas has hosted a variety of other art forms. The museum housed an exhibit on Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, until late October and also hosted an interactive exhibit about Mexican toys last winter.

When the museum is not displaying a traveling exhibit, visitors can view the museum’s permanent collection of works by Latin American artists.

Despite its small space, the museum attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year and hopes to eventually expand.

“People say our museum is OAS’ hidden jewel,” Bendersky said. “That’s exactly what we want people in Washington to know. You’ll see something different here.”

“It’s a culturally diverse institution,” agreed Maria Leyva, curator of the museum. “In this day and age, I think it is even more important for people to be educated about other cultures.”

The Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW, is near the World War II Memorial. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free.

National Museum of Health and Medicine

Five miles north of the White House, the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus offers a unique look into medicine and the human body.

Founded in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum, the original purpose was to research how to better treat wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Later, the museum’s mission was expanded to include education.

“We offer the visitor an opportunity to see the development of something everyone partakes in: medicine and health in their daily lives,” said Tim Clark Jr., public affairs officer for the museum.

One of the museum’s most popular exhibits displays artifacts related to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, including the bullet that killed him, since Army medical personnel responded to the call to treat the president. The museum also has a long-standing exhibit on Civil War medicine that includes the amputated leg bones of an Army commander who was wounded at Gettysburg.

Another large exhibit explores the human body and displays preserved organs including one lung from a coal miner and another from a smoker. The exhibit also gives visitors the opportunity to touch the inside of a human stomach and view a brain still attached to a spinal cord.

The museum also features a photography exhibit about battlefield surgery, a forensic science exhibit explaining how investigators identify service members who give their lives for their country, an exhibit containing the world’s largest collection of microscopes and an exhibit that documents human development from the embryonic stage to age 5 and includes real human specimens.

Clark says the museum, which attracts about 70,000 visitors each year, brings in everyone from Civil War buffs who want to see the Lincoln artifacts to health care officials there for the pathological artifacts. The exhibits are self-guided, interactive and user-friendly.

Although the museum is a considerable distance from other museums on the National Mall, Clark says the trip is well worth the effort.

“There are things you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else in the world,” he said.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is located on the Walter Reed campus, at 6900 Georgia Ave. NW. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25 and admission is free. The museum is open to the general public, but adults must show photo identification to get onto the base and into the museum.

Marian Koshland Science Museum

Across town, the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences provides another look at science that affects people across the globe.

The museum opened in 2004 and is known for its computer-based interactivity.

“Our museum is interested in giving people an experience where they can see science that is affecting their lives today,” said Erika Shugart, deputy director of the museum.

One of the most popular exhibits is “Lights at Night,” where visitors use computers to zoom around the globe and see how places have gotten lighter and darker over the years.

“You can see how Loudoun County has gotten brighter and Ukraine has gotten darker from its depressed economy,” Shugart said.

The global warming exhibit similarly features large screens that enable visitors to navigate through time and actually observe the warming trend.

In the infectious disease exhibit, visitors see a variety of people covered with a screen from the waist up that shows fungus and parasites on their bodies. For example, the exhibit includes a chicken with avian flu and a physician with bacteria on his hands. The museum also features exhibits on safe drinking water and scientific research.

Named for the late immunologist and molecular biologist Marian Koshland, the museum was made possible by a gift from Koshland’s husband to honor his wife’s memory. The exhibits are geared toward visitors 13 and up and often attract individuals from federal agencies and Capitol Hill who are studying scientific issues. In addition to the exhibits, the museum hosts evening public programs for adults on various policy topics.

The Marian Koshland Science Museum is located on the corner of Sixth and E streets Northwest and costs $5 for adults with reduced admission for seniors, military, children and students. The museum opens at 10 a.m. daily with the last admission at 5 p.m. and is closed on Tuesdays.

National Museum of American Jewish Military History

Located in the heart of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History covers a niche subject, but still attracts a variety of visitors.

Founded by the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, the museum educates the public about the contributions of Jewish-Americans who have served in the armed forces and works to fight anti- Semitism. This year is the museum’s 50th anniversary.

The museum’s newest exhibit examines the Jewish War Veterans protest march against the Nazis on March 23, 1933, which brought thousands to New York. The exhibit features photographs and video clips from the march.

Another popular exhibit examines the role of women in the military by profiling female Jewish veterans of U.S. conflicts from the Civil War to the Gulf War. The exhibit focuses not only on the barriers that the individuals faced as women, but also as Jews. According to museum president David Magidson, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld both named the exhibit their favorite.

Other exhibits examine the grief of mothers who lost their children in war, the legacy of World War II hero Julius Klein, mementos from Jews who served in the armed forces, GIs and displaced persons from World War II, and Jewish-American recipients of the medal of honor.

Magidson says many visitors are surprised by how many Jews have served in the military.

“People say Jews did not fight in the Civil War,” Magidson said. “In fact, about 12,000 fought on the Union side and 7,000 or 8,000 fought on the Confederate side. There’s prejudice that gets everybody and there’s certainly prejudice against Jews. The museum is here as proof to what they did.”

The National Museum of American Jewish Military History is located at 1811 R St. NW, and admission is free. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment on Sundays for groups of more than six.