D.C.’s big-name museums have a lot to offer in the summer months. The threat of being trampled. The threat of trampling someone else. Views of tall people’s heads. Illegally parked strollers. Illegally parked babies. All with a warm sweat glaze. There are better, less-perilous places to admire objects in glass cases, read text on walls and look for the bathroom. Here are nine.
INSTEAD OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY:
NRA National Firearms Museum
For the neophyte, the NFM is like going to the Library of Congress without the ability to read. Every object is meaningful, but they all look the same. Here, the guns are shiny enough, the placards explanatory enough and the dioramas dramatic enough to busy those upon whom the NFM’s nuance is lost. For the enthusiast, nuance abounds. Each weapon’s details are accessible at computer terminals. To understand “details” in this context, imagine asking a question about Thomas Jefferson, and Monticello sequencing his DNA for you.
Highlights: A carnival shooting gallery (sans shooting); loads of Hollywood guns, including seven from NRA member Tom Selleck’s personal collection; the Colt Vampire, above, which came in a coffin-shaped case along with holy water, a stake, etc.
Gift Shop: Refreshingly unreliant on tchotchkes. Go here for instructional books and DVDs, guncare supplies and non-toy firearm replicas.
» NRA National Firearms Museum, NRA Headquarters, 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax; open daily from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., free; 703-267-1600, Nramuseum.com.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
Open from 1796 until 1933, this restored pharmacy is the place to be if you like old-timey medicine but are scared of the DEA Museum. Pretty glass jars labeled in Latin, some with their elderly contents intact, line shelves downstairs.
Gift Shop: Books, shirts, local crafts.
» Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, 105-107 S. Fairfax St., Alexandria; Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun.-Mon., 1 p.m.-5 p.m. (hours change in November), $3-$5; 703-746-3852. A guided tour is required.
National Museum Of Dentistry
Nothing makes us more grateful for modern medicine than the barbaric implements of early dentistry. The Smithsonian affiliate has much to offer the non-sadist as well, such as vintage TV commercials, retro toothbrushes, left, and a chunk of George Washington’s ivory dentures.
Highlights: The room devoted to forensic odontologists, who use teeth to identify human remains, is a “CSI” spin-off waiting to happen. Also: a Victorian gizmo that pre-chewed food, called a masticator; full-sized dentists’ chairs hanging from the ceiling.
Gift Shop: Bacon- and salad-flavored floss and toothpaste beckon.
» National Museum Of Dentistry, 31 S. Greene Street, Baltimore; Wed.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun., 1 p.m.-4 p.m., $3-$7; 410-706-0600.
INSTEAD OF ARLINGTON CEMETERY:
These 35-plus acres have remarkable joie de vivre for a burial ground. Like, yeah, everyone’s dead, but they have a good attitude about it. The tours — self-guided, via cell phone and, on Saturdays through October, docent-led — introduce all manner of characters, among them some strong female role models. Maybe not the best example: The angel at left was purchased by prosperous D.C. bordello owner Mary Hall to mark the graves of her mother and sister. Mary didn’t give herself one.
Gift Shop: Plots are available for purchase.
» Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE; open daily during daylight hours, free; 202-543-0539. Metro: Potomac Ave.
INSTEAD OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CRIME AND PUNISHMENT:
Drug Enforcement Agency Museum And Visitors Center
The main exhibit is a sprawling history, not just of illegal drugs and their traffickers, but of the subcultures that made substance abuse cool. The jazz scene, the Beat movement and ’80s yuppie scum are all implicated. Also guilty: the medical industry of the late 1800s, when moms quieted babies with opiates and nasty coughs were treated with heroin. Here and there lurk graphic images of dead people, to remind us that drugs are society’s greatest evil, even though, yes, it is amusing that someone hid contraband in a fake book titled “Guilt.”
Photo Op: The (non-operational) marijuana vending machine.
Brochures: Lavish, full-color and glossy, the DEA’s handouts are the coffee-table books of free museum literature.
Gift Shop: Stocks many DEA-branded workplace accessories. Note: While a DEA lanyard might impress the ladies, you can’t bust anyone without real credentials.
» DEA Museum, 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington; Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free; 202-307-3463. Metro: Pentagon City. Park at Pentagon City mall.
The Workhouse Museums
To be clear: The actual museums are works in progress. This is a single room in the Workhouse Arts Center, formerly a D.C.-run prison complex. Yet we spent two hours in said room because the docent vividly delivered on the website’s promise of “Drunkards, Vagrants and Suffragists,” all of which were housed here from 1910 to 2001. About half the space is devoted to suffragettes arrested for picketing outside the White House in 1917 and 1918. The visual centerpiece is an assemblage of mannequins depicting a female inmate on a hunger strike being force-fed through a nose-to-stomach tube.
In Storage: Old Sparky the electric chair.
Gift Shop: The Arts Center sells items made by local artisans and Votes for Women china.
» The Workhouse Museums, Building 9, Workhouse Arts Center, 9601 Ox Road, Lorton, Va.; Wed.-Fri., noon-3 p.m., Sat.-Sun., noon-4 p.m..
INSTEAD OF THE SPY MUSEUM:
National Cryptologic Museum
The NSA’s temple of codes and code-breaking looks like a textbook exploded. We mean that nicely! Brightly colored, wordy displays, photos of solemn geniuses, and steam-punky equipment illustrate encryption shenanigans from all our recent wars, Civil and Cold included. Take the tour and you’ll see an Enigma machine (the notorious German cipher engine cracked by the Allies during World War II) in action (that’s one on the right). The guides know an alarming amount; one made small talk before the tour by asking guests how much ricin they thought it would take to kill someone.
Brochures: One could build an entire extra museum with all the freebies here. Didn’t bring a suitcase? At least take the “Codes, Ciphers and Puzzles” activity book, “Sharing the Burden: Women in Cryptology During World War II” and “The Cryptographic Mathematics of Engima.”
Gift Shop: NSA-emblazoned golf and office stuff, vintage propaganda posters for just $5, apparel.
» National Cryptologic Museum, Street Highway 32 and Street Highway 295, Annapolis Junction; Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m., first and third Saturdays of each month, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., free; 301-688-5849.
INSTEAD OF ANY HOME OF A HISTORICAL FIGURE:
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass is an unambiguously admirable figure. He also had excellent taste in home decor, as one can observe on a visit to his D.C. home, Cedar Hill. (His study is pictured above.) The tour guide was an attraction unto himself, likening objects to their present-day analogs: Douglass’ flat-screen TV (a View-Master-like contraption), iPod (music box), home gym (hand weights) and man cave (the Growlery, an outbuilding where F.D. sought peace and quiet).
Gift Shop: Primarily books on civil rights and slavery. Douglass’ works are for sale, too.
» Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, 1411 W St. SE; grounds open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (hours change Oct. 15), tours required to see the home, free; 202-426-5961. Within walking distance of Anacostia Metro.
Montpelier, despite sounding like Monticello’s nerdy kid brother, has a rawness most Founding Father abodes lack. The estate of James Madison, president No. 4, was sold after his death, and the preservationists didn’t get hold of it until 1984. The entire site is being reverse-engineered, and it shows. Some of the rooms look empty because accurately refurnishing them is not easy, for example.
Highlights: Dolley Madison’s engagement ring; ongoing archaeological excavations.
Gift Shop: Standard fare.
» Montpelier, 11407 Constitution Hwy, Montpelier Station, Va.; daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (hours change in November), $8-$16; 540-672-2728.
SHOPS FOR BORED WALLETS
The DEA Museum gift shop’s Junior Special Agent badge ($5) teaches kids that reflective surfaces convey authority. Other finds: $1 “Get Off the Grass” bumper stickers, handsome Christmas ornaments, onesies.
Mrs. Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont commissioned Votes for Women china ($17, Workhouse Arts Center gift shop) for a 1909 party supporting the women’s suffrage movement, in Newport, R.I.
The National Cryptologic Museum store’s Hobo Signals Mug ($12.50) complements the “Hobo Communication in the Depression” exhibit in the lobby. Hobos used the symbols to avoid mean dogs and find nice doctors.
A shot glass ($8) from the National Firearms Museum asks, “Where does drinkware end and freestanding sculpture begin?”
Photos: Colt Vampire: National Firearms Museum, NRAmuseum.com; Toothbrushes: Photo by Amy Pelsinsky, Courtesy the National Museum of Dentistry; Polish Enigma: Courtesy of National Cryptologic Museum; Congressional Cemetery angel: Christopher Levy; souvenirs: Marge Ely/Express; Crowd: CSA Images via Getty Images