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5 Family-Friendly Museums Open in Washington, DC During the Shutdown

Jan. 20, 2019
8 min read
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Lately, news coverage is all about the government shutdown, and for good reason. While the funding lapse has affected many museums in the city, including those in the iconic Smithsonian Institutions and National Zoo, Washington, DC still has tons for families who are visiting during the government shutdown.

As a 30-year DC Metro resident, I'd like to share some of my favorite Washington, DC museums, all of which are currently unaffected by the shutdown.

For Tech-Savvy Tweens and Teens: The Newseum

I've loved the Newseum since it opened in 2008 with its current events and First Amendment focus. The subjects covered — including Sept. 11, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Civil Rights Movement — definitely lean toward a more mature audience, so this may not be a big hit with the toddler and young elementary school crowd.

Image courtesy of the Newseum

But for slightly older kids, tweens and teens, the Newseum is among the more tech-friendly museums I've visited. Even iPhone-attached teens should find the interactive exhibits engaging. I especially enjoy the "Ethics Center," where visitors play a "what would you do" game from the point of view of a journalist or an editor.

Image courtesy of the Newseum

During the shutdown, the Newseum is offering free admission to federal workers with a badge and 15% off general admission for anyone else who books online. That drops the price to about $21 for adults; $13 for kids ages 7 to 15; and $16 for seniors 65 or older. Children 6 and under are free.

Image courtesy of the Newseum

For Art Lovers: The Phillips Collection

While DC is famous for the National Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection is my go-to art museum in the city. The permanent collections are actually free for all to view from Tuesday to Friday and ticketed exhibits costs about $10 to $12, with kids under 18 ringing in at a budget-friendly $0. As the nation's first museum of modern art, The Phillips Collection has delighted visitors for almost a century. You'll recognize works by artists including Renoir, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Georgia O'Keefe. The museum's historic setting adds to its charm and the manageable size helps keep even art agnostics engaged.

The best part for families (other than free admission for kids)? The Phillips Collection has an entire gallery that is just for children! Paintings are hung at kids' eye level and feature discussion prompts that make sense for pint-sized art admirers. There's even a reading area made with kids in mind. The Phillips also has a treasure hunt that you can download to get the kids excited about your visit.

The Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection. (Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection (Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Federal employees with an ID are admitted for free during the shutdown.

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For History Buffs: Mount Vernon

I'm cheating a bit here, because Mount Vernon is technically in Virginia, but George Washington's former residence is worth the drive or Uber ride. (Fortunately, you'll be against traffic both ways.) Mount Vernon is noteworthy as a historical monument, but what I really appreciate is the efforts made to bring history to life.

The 4D film about Washington's role in the American Revolution is absolutely top-notch, with effects that rival those I've seen at Disney. However, that means it's not for kids who have sensory issues or who are very young, as the cannon shots feel real! The new "Be Washington" what-would-you-do theater experience is not as intense, so it should be appropriate for everyone.

During your visit you can meet people from the Revolutionary Period; interact with a live fife and drum corps; and even get a selfie with Martha Washington on weekends. The schedule of events varies daily and I highly recommend planning your visit around one of the tours or special events if you can. Note: The main house will be closed from Jan. 28 to Feb. 10, 2019 for refurbishment, but the grounds and museum will remain open.

Reenactors at Mount Vernon Scenics. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
Reenactors at Mount Vernon Scenics. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Tickets to Mount Vernon are $18 for adults, $11 for kids and free for children 5 and under.

For Little 'Bob the Builders': National Building Museum

When parents of children under 6 ask me where to go in DC, the National Building Museum is usually first on my list. The reason? Not one but two separate play areas where kids can flex their building muscles.

The "Play Work Build" exhibition features more than 2,300 architectural toys from the last hundred years, including ones that every kid will recognize such as Lincoln Logs and, of course, LEGOs. Best of all, after looking at all these toys, kids get the opportunity to play with massive foam building blocks.

Washington DC, National Building Museum, Building Zone, hands-on children's area. (Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)
Image courtesy of the National Building Museum,

If your kids aren't done channeling their inner architect, they can go to "The Building Zone." It's a special play area for kids ages 2 to 6. In The Building Zone, kids can don construction garb, "shop" in a hardware store and build with LEGOs (and Duplos) to their heart's content.

Like The Phillips Collection, the National Building Museum would be worth seeing for the building itself. The original site for the US Pensions Bureau, the neoclassical masterpiece stands out with its red brick facade and Corinthian columns in the main hall. The building also hosted the first inaugural ball for Grover Cleveland in 1885 and many others in subsequent years.

Admission is $7 to $10 for children and adults, and free for those 2 and under or federal employees with a badge (during the shutdown).

For the Mature Crowd: The Holocaust Museum

Last but not least, the Holocaust Museum, located just south of the National Mall, is currently open (and free) during the government shutdown. Just pay attention to their Twitter account for operating hours and current status. The museum has closed during some previous shutdowns, but fingers crossed the doors will remain open this time around.

Naturally, the subject matter of this museum isn't necessarily appropriate for young children and isn't family-friendly in the same way as the "Play World Build" exhibit in the Building Museum. (The permanent exhibition is recommended for those 11 years of age and older.) Be sure your children are prepared for the important information in the museum before adding this stop to your DC agenda, but for teens and families ready to tackle mature subject matter while in DC, the Holocaust Museum can be a very impactful place.

Image courtesy of the National Holocaust Museum

The Bottom Line

Don't let the government shutdown deter you from visiting Washington, DC. You can still get your museum and history fix while teaching your kids about past and current events, admiring world-class art, gaping at neoclassical architecture and experiencing history you just can't see anywhere else.

If these museums aren't the right match for your family, other still-operational attractions in Washington, DC include US Capital tours, the US Botanical Garden (funded through the end of the year), tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and outdoor destinations, such as iconic monuments on the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery. Also consider venturing into Baltimore for some free and family-friendly attractions.

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Featured image by UIG via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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