The insider's guide to your holiday museum visit

One of the perks of working in a museum is being able to commune with objects in the quiet hours of the morning before the doors open to the public. But there comes a time in every spoiled museum worker’s life when you morph back into being a member of the visiting public. Which is what I’ll be this weekend, when my family will be traveling from Dallas, Texas; Ames, Iowa; and Walla Walla, Washington, to celebrate Christmas in D.C. Most have not been to the museum since the renovation, and a few in the group (including my 6 year old niece and 3 year old nephew) have never been here at all. I’m thrilled to show the kids Spark!Lab and Invention at Play. My uncle, a retired history professor, will love theDocuments Gallery. My aunt, a gourmet cook, will be inspired by Julia Child’s kitchen. My brother the amateur sailor will love On the Water. And of course they’ll have to see the Star-Spangled Banner and the Lincoln exhibition and…oof, I’m tired already.

Holiday tree Welcome Center

We won’t be alone—the two days after Christmas are among the museum’s busiest days of the whole year. Thousands of families just like mine will be enjoying a day together at the Smithsonian. So how am I planning to deal with shepherding a group of 12 through the crowds? Here are some of my survival tips:

1. Be prepared
Here’s what to expect: the museum will be very, very busy from December 26th right on through January 3rd. If you want to see some of our most popular exhibitions—First Ladies, The Star-Spangled Banner, you will probably have to wait in line. Don’t let that dissuade you from coming—there’s a wonderful energy and liveliness in our holiday crowds. But if you know what to expect it will be a much more pleasant visit for your whole group.

2. Have a plan
If your family is anything like mine, there are some very organized folks and, well, some people who have a harder time making a decision. The last thing you want to spend your time doing on a crowded day here at the museum is standing around in Flag Hall going, “I don’t know, what do you want to see?” Before you visit, have everyone check out the Plan Your Visit section of our Web site and pick one or two things they’re really interested in. Then split up into groups and arrange to meet back at our of our convenient, easy-to-spot landmark objects.

3. Visit in the morning or evening
Things start getting busy around noon and crowds peak between 2 and 4 p.m.. We plan to get here when the doors open at 10 a.m. to avoid the most crowded time of day. Better yet, take advantage of our special holiday evening hours.

4. Eat early or late
Head to the Stars and Stripes Cafe before 11:15 a.m. or after 2 p.m. to avoid the lunch rush.

5. Travel light
If you don’t bring a bag, you can sail right through security at the front doors.

6. Don’t hesitate to ask for help
Stop in at the Welcome Center on the second floor, where our volunteers can provide you with maps, tips, directions, and information on the days’ events. They can also point you to our numerous family restrooms, which make taking a “rest stop” with children or older adults who may need assistance much easier.

7. Don’t push it
I see too many people in our hallways at the end of the day, cranky and exhausted because they’ve tried to see everything. It’s much better to have a shorter, enjoyable visit. This applies a thousandfold when you’re dealing with kids. Choose one or two objects or exhibitions to see before you take a break or leave for the day. The museum is free, and you can come back anytime.

8. Grab a souvenir
In our stores you'll find books for the history buff, souvenirs for out-of-town folks, jewelry for the first lady in your life, and the just-released “Night at the Smithsonian” DVD. 

I wish all of our readers a happy and healthy holiday season, and look forward to seeing lots of you down here next week!

Megan Smith is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History.