National Firearms Museum Visit

There isn’t a museum I don’t want to visit. Just ask me. Each one has its special features and more than a reason or two to explore. My family is usually on board with any choice I make and we have toured some of the best in the country over the years. It is our favorite vacation pastime. Recently, we had the opportunity to make the rounds of the National Firearms Museum. It has fifteen galleries and over 2,700 guns exhibited in 15,000 square feet so you can spend more than a few hours there. It is under the auspices of the National Rifle Association and is located in Fairfax, Virginia.

Whether or not you own a firearm, you will enjoy the regular fare as well as the special exhibitions such as Hollywood Guns featuring weapons used in movies and on TV for over 80 years. Yes, Dirty Harry is included! Overall, the museum places weapons within history and the American experience. The galleries are organized according to eras such as the stockade fort at Jamestown. The full-scale dioramas including a 19th century riflemaker’s shop are irresistible and a must see. You can also view a WWI trench on the Western front and a town square that has been shelled out during WWII. It’s a great way for kids to learn about the past as it is brought to life. In fact, it is a great way for adults to absorb information.

Guns are meant to secure freedom and independence, but you don’t even have to get into politics to enjoy the museum. You can stick with the utilitarian side of things as firearms are used for exploration, hunting, competition, and recreational sports. In addition, with the Robert E. Petersen Gallery, the National Firearms Museum has what has been called “the finest single room of guns anywhere in the world.”  Fabulous masterpieces of engraving are on display including British shotguns and double rifles.

Interestingly enough, holsters are also on exhibit. What’s a gun without one! This is especially true for the characters in movies. Maybe you don’t remember what a particular cowboy or gangster wore, but you can find out. The Beretta pistol used by Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon had a specific place on his person. Then of course there is the gun wielded by Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Some gunslingers show the weapon as a deterrent and others enjoy a concealed carry holster. It all depends on the circumstance and element of surprise.

While there are no guided tours to clue you in on these details, there are pamphlets and self-tours available. Descriptions of items on display are also helpful and it is vital to take the time to read them. Plus, if you go to the website you can get a brief history of firearms and information on the American West. Guns can be a colorful subject indeed and can transcend the realm of crime and protection. The birth of the modern revolver is quite fascinating.

Including the Kids

Museum-going is a family hobby for us here at the House of David

Museum-going is a family hobby for us here at the House of David.  But how did we get the kids involved, and how do we keep them interested?

First, I have to say, we have good kids. Probably Felicia deserves all the credit there. They’re naturally curious and have a broad range of interests. I think being dragged to museums from a very young age probably had something to do with it.

When they were babies, it didn’t matter where we went. The goal was usually to get out of the house. While you have to lug a lot of stuff along with you, babies are incredibly portable. They’ll occasionally get loud and it can echo in a large gallery (Marcus has tested the acoustics in more than one building), but if you plan ahead, you should be fine with a stroller or carrier (check the museum’s policy on strollers first, many don’t allow them) and one heavily stocked diaper bag.

As they get a little older and can toddle around, adjust your excursions accordingly. Let them run around outside beforehand to burn off some energy, and plan to do it again immediately upon leaving—BEFORE you get in the car or board that train. And bring food. Trust me on that one, especially if you have a ways to go or if you think you’ll hit traffic. Give them firm expectations for their behavior. Be prepared to leave or have consequences if those expectations aren’t met. My biggest piece of advice, though, is to know your audience. If your kid is a definitely a toucher, don’t go places where there are priceless antiques with just a rope—or even worse, nothing—around them. Take them to a children’s museum where it is OK to touch stuff. If they’re into space, or dinosaurs, or whatever, I promise there’s a museum for that. If they aren’t into anything you can work with, go to the library and ask a librarian for a popular kid’s book that you CAN work with. Although, in my experience, no kid can resist dinosaurs or space. Or bugs. Yuck.

Once they’re past the “stop touching everything!” phase, you can start to go back to the nice places. But it’s still important to include their interests when thinking of somewhere to go. Ask them. I’ve been to fashion exhibits, television museums, and seen more sports memorabilia than I care to remember. But the KIDS look forward to going, and that’s really the cool thing. They get excited. Now they do the research themselves to look for new places to go, which I really love. We take turns choosing, so everyone feels like they have a say. If you can’t do that, I highly recommend taking a vote. Anything you can do to make them feel like they’re part of the decision making process, and that their opinion matters, will go a long way. And if you can make it a competition, that helps, too. We’ve played games where we split into two teams and try to find the most interesting, or boring, or silly, item in a museum and then see what each has come up with. Winner gets to pick where we go for dinner.

Make it fun, and it can be a hobby for years to come.

My Favorite Place to Go


If I had to pick a museum that is my very favorite, I have to say, I’m biased. I’d pick my hometown Museum of Natural History. I don’t know, maybe it’s from having gone there as a kid, or maybe it is because it is just a train ride away, but I could go there every day and not get bored. You’ve got that stunning building with its amazing architecture, the incredible view of the park, and oh, the treasures housed within!

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with one thing: dinosaurs. When you walk into that gorgeous rotunda and see the giant Barosaurus, oh, it’s knock-your-socks-off awesome. You just know you’re in for something special. There might be bigger and better exhibits elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Wyoming Dinosaur Center, but I didn’t see that until after we had kids) but I’m loyal to my first love.  They revamped the 4th floor when the kids were small and it’s even more amazing now. The saber tooth cat is my absolute favorite. It’s amazing to think, with all these animals that have evolved for precision or camouflage or something, there was this big goofy looking idiot out there with those giant teeth. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

Now I love to go there and check out the Rose Center, which Tonya got me hooked on. Because who doesn’t want to know what they would weigh throughout the universe (besides my wife, I mean)? That’s just cool. And they put all this mind-boggling information out there in such a smart and interesting way. It’s a surefire kids into outer space. In other words, it’s not your run of the mill science fair solar system model. Everything is done to scale and awesomely done.

The wife has dragged me to the hall of gems enough times that it’s become one of my favorites, too. We got to see the Hope Diamond there once when it was travelling.  Wow. And the Star of India, which is just amazing.My wife’s favorite stone is an emerald, and we stare at the Patricia and wonder what we’d turn it into if I could buy it for her. I can’t even imagine how much it would cost!

And Marcus? Well, he loves the big blue whale (and what trip to the Museum of Natural History is complete without a visit to the whale?) and all the great ocean life dioramas.  His favorite is the sperm whale and giant squid. We used to make up stories about that diorama, what was happening and who we thought was going to win. The stories were never the same twice.

That’s why I like it there so much. There’s something for all of us, and I’ve got special memories there with each member of my family. I can walk through there by myself, or with any combination of my family, and have a great day. I call that a major win.

Education and Fun: It is Possible!

Kids don’t want to get dragged somewhere on a weekend or over the summer to learn anything. That’s so uncool (or lame,or whatever word the kids are using now. If I ask, they’ll just make fun of me.) Yet we manage to take our kids to 4-6 museums a year without death threats or bribery.


I’d like to say it is through my great parenting skills or because my kids respect me enough to do what I say, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably neither of those things (maybe if my wife were writing this, that would be more believable). The truth is that the kids WANT to go these places, because we don’t really make it about the education aspect. We try to make it more about whatever interests the kids have, because you’d be surprised at how much they retain when it is something they want to learn.

For example, Marcus was learning about the first moon landing. So we took a trip to the National Air and Space Museum, where he got to see a testing version of a lunar module. Pretty cool stuff. For months afterward, it was like living with a tiny rocket scientist. It felt like he remembered the entire tour. When Tonya couldn’t figure out the difference between seals and sea lions, we went to the New York Aquarium to find out (this was before I knew that google has the answer to everything, although I still prefer to figure it out myself). Turns out, sea lions are the ones who walk and have visible ears, while seals crawl on their bellies and you can’t see any ear flaps. I know this because I just went and asked Tonya; she’s remembered it since that day when she asked one of the aquarium staff. When the kids were learning about the witch trials, we piled into the car and got thoroughly creeped out in Salem, Massachusetts. But again, it’s something the kids never forgot.I mean, really, there’s a guy who got PRESSED to death. That’s pretty memorable. They learned about ancient Egypt in school and were shocked to discover that there’s a pyramid right here in New York City; it’s at the MoMA. They still love visiting it.

That’s the stuff I’m talking about. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or anything, and we’ve never made the kids write reports about what they saw when they got home (although I am kicking myself a little about that, it might have actually been kind of fun to do. I doubt the kids would see it that way, though. How about you give it a try and let me know how it goes?)Just find something that sparks their imagination a little and they’ll take it from there. Or, better yet, find something they’re struggling to understand and find something relating to THAT. It might just be the missing piece to get it all to click in their heads.

For the cost of the price of admission, that’s a pretty great deal, and it’s one I’ll take every time!

Documenting the Journey

We go to a lot of museums. I like to be able to remember what trip was what exhibit, so I started keeping a scrapbook.  My wife is big into digital scrapbooking, and those look nice, but when I started (before digital photography was a thing, so basically when dinosaurs roamed the earth!),I used those sticky archive pages inside of a binder (organized by year) and it’s just worked for me. So I keep doing it. There is something to be said for an actual physically printed photograph.  I mean, I love technology, especially digital cameras (this coming from a guy who used to develop his own photographs just for fun) but I can put my museum map or the admission ticket or something in with a few pictures of Marcus and Tonya in front of their favorite discoveries at each place.  It’s nice to be able to go back over the trips, especially when Marcus says things like, “Dad, where was that creepy place with the Soap Lady?”  I can go pull out the page with him from the Mutter.  Now, my wife would say she’s got all her photos digitally saved on the computer and tagged (she’s a brave and determined woman, scanning in old photos whenever she’s bored on a weekend), so it would take few keystrokes and she’d get it faster than me with my old school index—the kids have timed us like a race; the one time I won, Felicia’s computer crashed.

My index binder isn’t anything special. Just paper where I list each year, and all the places we went in that year.  It’s amazing to see it all written out like that.   All the places we’ve gone and things we’ve seen.  Then I know which book it’s in.  Simple, right?

I’ve had friends who travel around the world and put a pin in a map whenever they go somewhere new.  I know others that make photobooks every year, and that works for them.  I’ve got my binders.  My wife does all kinds of fancy stuff with the computer.  But the point is that these memories are displayed or documented in some way.  That’s the important thing.  To have something that says, “I was there. I saw something meaningful.”  That’s why we take the kids to these museums in the first place.

Especially as I get older, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be. I write this stuff down and even after I’m gone, Marcus and Tonya are going to have all this to look back on.  They’ll remember all those ridiculous places we dragged them (like the Wax Museum we went to in the early 90s in Lancaster, PA, that scared Tonya half to death, I don’t think she’s ever fully gotten over it) because the pictures will be right there in those binders everyone makes so much fun of me for. But somewhere there’s a physical record of it. I highly recommend it. Not just because by now I’d be confused about which place was what if I didn’t, but it’s just cool to see how the kids have gotten older and how we’ve gone from the children’s museums to the dinosaur exhibits and butterfly gardens to sculpture gardens and civil war museums.  It’s like our life story. It’s definitely worth documenting.

What about you? What’s your favorite way to document a trip?

How to Plan a Museum Adventure

I’ve had people ask me how we plan these museum trips and it’s easier than you think. It’s not like planning a trip to Disney where you have to schedule every second. My advice is to start one of three ways:

1) Is there something you care about or are interested in? Say you have a miniature train hobby.  Type “miniature train museum” into your favorite search bar and you’ll be amazed at how many places come up. Pick one that is a distance you’re willing to go, and plan your trip.  Or if there’s a history buff in the family (like the wife, so now every fourth trip we’re at some battlefield museum or famous dead person’s house looking at their historically important desk or something), think of a significant event in the time period you’re interested in. I bet if you do some digging, you’ll find a museum for that, too.  If you have a favorite artist, see if there’s a collection of their work somewhere.  Give it a try, see what you can come up with.

2) Another option, and this is the one that I personally like, is to find a place on the map you’re interested in going. It could be ANYWHERE.  One time when it was my turn, I was eating an orange every day for lunch, so I got the brilliant idea that we were going to West Orange, New Jersey.  Now that place isn’t all that far from us, but I’d never been there and didn’t really know what it has to offer. But I typed “West Orange, NJ Museums” into the yahoo bar and that’s how we ended up at the Montclair Art Museum staring at an Edward Hopper painting.  How awesome is that? I did this even before the internet, too, where I’d just pick somewhere on the map, and me and Felicia would just head there. Let me tell you: there isn’t a lot in Bullpit, IL, other than some nice people. But I did learn some stuff about the Great Frog Infestation of 1875. You can’t beat that (or live it down. I lost my pick for two years over that one)!

3) The last way requires the least amount of planning. If you’ve heard of a museum (we watch a lot of the History Channel, so this happens regularly at our house) and you think it might be a great place to visit, write down the name. Go look it up and see how far it is. If it’s a distance you’re willing to go, great. If not, think about what struck you as interesting about it and see if there’s something similar closer to you.

A few other bits of advice: first, if you’re travelling during the summer, getting advance tickets to any special events that you want to do is smart. Same with hotels. There might be a festival or some other event going on at the same time that can affect room availability.  Make reservations if you can, on the route you’re taking if necessary but definitely at your destination.  Second, have a bit of a backup plan. Some places will take days to really look through, others a couple of hours. You’ll feel pretty dumb if you load up the car and kids, drive for hours and hours to get to a video arcade museum only to find out it’s really just some guy’s basement with a couple of vintage machines. Have options in the area, or know where to find them. Those pamphlets in hotel lobbies are your friends. Grab a few on your way to check in. Or if you stay at those fancy hotels, ask the concierge what’s worth doing. Lastly, know before you go: plan your costs. Some places have expensive admissions. Some don’t have any. Others only ask for a donation. Some places, if you actually read the sign, say “suggested price” which means you can pay whatever you want to pay. This is true. So it’s in your best interest to figure it out beforehand.