The National Museum of Health and Medicine: Fascinating, but not for the Faint of Heart

An "inside" look at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

An “inside” look at the National Museum of Health and Medicine



Every once in a while, our adventures around the DC-Metro don’t go so well. An exhibit disappoints, a show can’t hold the preschooler attention span, a meltdown occurs. Recently, one was just a total fail — and I only have my poor judgement to blame.

For the most part, discovering new places and trying different activities with my kids goes rather swimmingly. Like me, they enjoy getting out of the house and are open to new experiences… and they tend to bring a positive perspective, focusing on what appeals to them instead of finding things to complain about (I like to think I’m like this, anyway, but it’s possible I’m just completely self-delusional).

This is especially true for Owen. He is an extremely curious and adventurous kid, and he just eats up information faster than we can feed it to him. He loves to read about science and nature and often prefers to watch wildlife documentaries and “Mysteries at the Museum” over cartoons. He’s fascinated by historic events, geography, the human body. And he’s a cool kid. Of course, I think he’s awesome, but what I mean is that he’s pretty composed for a first grader. Owen is the one who always volunteers (and strangely often gets picked) to perform in front of large crowds — he’s won a dance contest, been part of a knife juggling act, assisted with science experiments, all with audiences’ eyes on him. (That, he does not get from me.) And, generally, he’s not easily freaked out by the realities of science and nature, but instead views them curiously and pragmatically.

So, why all this background on the psyche of my son? Because it’s necessary to understand why I thought a visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine would be right up his alley.

The museum, originally established as the Army Medical Museum, houses collections of medical specimens for research in military medicine and surgery. I’ve been aware of it and eager to go for awhile now, as I find medicine, anatomy, and pathology incredibly fascinating. (Just ask my husband how easily I get sucked into episodes of “Medical Mysteries” and “Untold Stories of the ER”). Given Owen’s penchant for science and the like, I thought he’d make an excellent companion on a trip there.

The museum from the outside

The museum from the outside

We finally decided to go a couple of weeks ago when he had a day off from school and Sasha did not. I told him about the museum, and he was intrigued by the idea of seeing “insides” of the body as well as the Abraham Lincoln exhibit which includes objects associated with his last hours of life — bone fragments from his skull, the bullet that killed him, and more.

The visit started out well enough. We found the museum easily, parked with no problem, and were greeted by friendly staff upon our entrance. They explained that all of the exhibits were located on one floor in three main areas and showed us where to get a map of the space.

This guy greeted us in the lobby

A skeleton greeted us in the lobby

Right in the lobby is a real human skeleton, which Owen spent a good few minutes checking out. Then we made our way to the “The Human Body Anatomy and Pathology” area, a room full of all kinds of specimens from the body. There is a case of human skeletons, from a four-month fetus to a five-year-old, to demonstrate bone growth. Another display taking up an entire wall contains numerous splices from organs, muscles, and other body parts. A real human brain and spine is the centerpiece of a display about the brain and quite compelling to view up close.

Displays all about the human body

Displays all about the human body

Brain power

Brain power

We probably spent a good 20-30 minutes in that room before moving on to “The Collection That Teaches.” There are several parts to this area, including artifacts from military medicine like early medical instruments, the Lincoln exhibit, and specimens and photos of diseased body parts. It started off okay as we viewed old scalpels and saws used to operate and amputate during the Civil War. We saw a giant hairball and an elephantiasis leg. It was all quite fascinating.

Viewing medical artifacts from wars

Medical artifacts from wars

Early instruments

Early instruments

Then things went quickly downhill. In one of the cases in that room are three jars containing deformed fetuses and babies, including one with Siamese twins. It didn’t bother me so much because of the museum context; I viewed it as part of a scientific exhibit. Owen, however, had a much different reaction. He asked a couple of questions, then quickly said in a shaky voice, “I don’t like this.” I immediately suggested we head over to the Lincoln exhibit, which he had been excited to see. Once there, I started to point out some of the things we had read about, and he said he just wanted to go. So, I steered us to the “Military Medicine: Challenges and Innovations” room, thinking we just needed to leave the area. But with a graphic display about facial reconstruction in the third room, it didn’t get any better. My poor boy was clearly done and wanted to leave the place. So, we did.

Needless to say, I felt awful. Granted, I didn’t know every detail of what we’d encounter there, but even if I had known what to expect, I probably wouldn’t have anticipated that reaction. It was a good reminder that, no matter how much my baby is growing up and learning and amazing me with all that he comprehends, he’s still a sensitive little boy, not ready to absorb all of the realities of life just yet.

Luckily, his spirits lifted quickly when we got back in the car and his favorite Kidz Bop CD started playing. And by the time we arrived at the nearby Parkway Deli (a fave from my Discovery days), he’d moved on altogether.

All of this said, I do recommend this museum — for the right museum-goer. It is incredibly fascinating for those who are interested in the subject matter it covers. Like many of my blog posts about our adventures around DC, this is just our experience, and yours might be very different. If I had to make the call, I would say that this one is probably most appropriate for older kids, preteens and up. But it really depends on the individual child and their interests and maturity.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is located at 2500 Linden Lane in Silver Spring. Hours are 10am – 5:30pm daily. Admission is free.

2 Comments

Filed under Educational, Exhibit, Free, Maryland, Museums, Ongoing, Preteens, Teens, Weekdays, Weekend

2 Responses to The National Museum of Health and Medicine: Fascinating, but not for the Faint of Heart

  1. Kim HB

    Don’t forget to warn of the naked man/man parts on the back wall of one of the exhibits. Like true to life. I felt it was inappropriate for my5&7 year old girls and wished of had some warning it was there. I think I was able to distract them from it quickly enough that they didn’t really see…or so I hope. Cool museum for the Bio nerd in me, but I agree, definitely better for older kids.

  2. Pingback: 25 Must See Activities in Washington D.C. @WashingtonDC - NYC Single Mom

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