By Amy Suski
If you've ever driven I-95 between Washington DC and Richmond and wondered what that strangely shaped triangular building was, wonder no more: its home of the United States Marine Corps Museum and surprisingly good place for a family outing. However, the museum warns that some of its exhibits are graphic and may not be appropriate for young children. Based on the content and activities we saw, older elementary aged-children should be fine but please use your own judgement. If your child can handle fake blood on mannequins and video footage of real battles, there is a lot of history to be learned here.
The museum is 36 miles south of Washington DC and offers free parking and free admission. The first thing you may notice about the building is that the striking silhouette is reminiscent of the iconic photograph of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. (See if your kids can compare the photograph to the building and imagine the group of Marines pushing the flagpole up from the ground.)
Once inside, be sure to pick-up a Gallery Hunt pamphlet for kids at the front desk. The "Devil Dogs" hunt guides children through the exhibits looking for animals connected to the Marine Corps and is good for younger children. The "Little Leathernecks" hunt asks older children to find historical facts in each gallery. The museum has done a very good job of catering its content to different age groups with interactive activities for all ages.
There are even special areas for younger children including Chesty's Dock and a fireside reading and craft area. Both areas are good diversions and resting spots for smaller children who are too young for the rest of the museum. While we were there several toddlers were having way too much fun with the dockside magnetic "fishing"…I got the feeling that they could have spent the whole day capturing and releasing fish down the plastic tubes. The area also included dress-up uniforms, rope-tying activities, and trivia. Crayons and paper were available in the reading area for children to leave artwork and messages for the Marines.
Our older kids most enjoyed the Making Marines Gallery which is set-up to demonstrate some of the physical challenges and training that Marines undergo. Kids can try their aim at a laser gun firing range, test their strength on pull-up bars, try on a heavy rucksack, and inspect the dress of full-uniformed marine for errors. Note: there is a small fee for the firing range, but kids get to keep their targets and receive a 10% coupon for the cafeteria.
Most of the other galleries are dedicated to specific wars and are full of life-like battle scenes, weapons, and important artifacts, like the American flag from Iwo Jima. Kids will also learn the little known fact that the photograph was taken of a second flag-raising by a professional photographer after most of the fighting had ended. The even more harrowing first flag-raising was captured by a military photographer under fire and was not publicized until after the second photo had already become famous.
The exhibits are made to be as life-like as possible, with the sounds of artillery, real vehicles and life-sized mannequins. In one of the Korea scenes you'll be blasted by cold air and in other exhibits you can climb into a transport boat and feel it shake. The simulations really help to bring history to life and foster an appreciation for the harsh conditions endured by servicemen and women during wartime.
After a few hours of history, you'll want to refresh yourself by ascending to the upper levels of the museum to the Devil Dog Cafeteria or the Tun Tavern. The cafeteria is fine for quick snacks and standard lunches, but if you have time I would recommend the reproduction colonial-era Tun Tavern, rumored to be the first meeting place of the Marines. The pub food is quite good and the atmosphere is much cozier.
If your kids are at all interested in military history, the Marine Corps Museum is a very worthwhile trip. But if your kids aren't quite ready for it, just wait a few years. From 2017-2020 a major renovation is expected to be unveiled with a giant screen theater, classrooms, art gallery and combat artist studio, and two new galleries about the Marine Corps from 1976-2014. Upcoming Family Days with special activities and crafts happen every month. For more information please visit www.usmcmuseum.com.
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