Hidden History: Five D.C.-Area Museums You Won’t Find in the Tourist Guide

Police line-up

The chef did it: Staff at the crime museum can answer all of your pressing law enforcement questions, like how a police line-up works, what fingerprint dust is made of, and why there are so many Law & Order spin-offs on TV.

The Washington, D.C., area is known for its marquee museums — with the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum being particular favorites of the public, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

But, it’s not all dinosaurs and dive bombers around here. Instead, here’s a look at five under-the-radar museums that, while they may lack the name recognition and foot traffic of the Smithsonian stalwarts, are no less deserving of your time.

Stonestreet Museum of 19th-Century Medicine
Location: Rockville, Md.
Open: Wednesday through Sunday
Admission: $5.00

Ideal for a pre-Halloween scare, Rockville’s Stonestreet Museum – named for the physician who practiced out of this tiny, one-room office in 1852 – offers a history lesson on tough-to-stomach, Civil War-era medicine. The assorted medical “tools” – an amputation kit and bowl of leeches leap out – will surely induce a cringe, while the simple mortar-and-pestle device helps explain how we all got along before Tylenol GelCaps. There are also a wood-burning stove and kettle – for dispensing hot coffee to sleepy patients? Twice each month, lively interpreter Clarence Hickey – wearing a top hat and frock coat – portrays Dr. Stonestreet for visitors, demonstrating the operation of various surgical instruments, expounding on the prevailing medical opinions of his day and generally making visitors feel good that they never had to visit the doctor 150 years ago.

National Museum of Crime & Punishment
Location: Northwest, D.C.
Open: Seven days a week
Admission: $19.95

If you’re into C.S.I., Law & Order, heck, even Starsky & Hutch re-runs, then the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Northwest, D.C., is your place. More than 100 exhibits spanning three floors offer an extensive look at America’s criminal heritage and law enforcement’s on-going efforts to bring crime to heel. Many of the exhibits are interactive, providing hours of felonious fun: Lock yourself in the pillory, test your reflexes in the Wild West shooting gallery and even try to crack a safe within the time limit. On the “punishment” side, experience the anxiety of standing in a police line-up, attempt to outwit a real lie detector test and put the pedal to the floor in a simulated, high-speed police chase. There’s even a crime scene investigation exhibit with a lab and morgue. Make sure you check out the array of execution machines, including an electric chair, gas chamber and – gulp – guillotine.

Museum of Hounds & Hunting
Location: Leesburg, Va.
Open: Seven days a week
Admission: $10.00

Tucked away in a corner of the spacious Morven Park estate in Leesburg, Va., the Museum of Hounds & Hunting preserves the rich – albeit somewhat obscure – history of fox hunting in America. Just the sort of genteel activity the good Dr. Stonestreet would’ve been into, no doubt. Exhibits range from the traditional – there are dozens of paintings and statuary of the sporting life – to more exotic fare, like the interactive replica of a harness maker’s workshop with its life-sized “workers.” Hunt hard enough and you’ll flush out some true gems: an authentic huntsman’s horn from 1731 and General George S. Patton’s own hunting diaries. Keep your eyes peeled for the bizarre, 19th-century jockey chair, a spring-loaded contraption on which riders would sit and bounce for up to 30 minutes to maintain riding muscles during days of inclement weather.

George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill
Location: Mount Vernon, Va.
Open: Seven days a week (through Oct. 31)
Admission: $4.00

Here’s something they don’t teach in school: When he wasn’t chopping down cherry trees or refusing to lie through his wooden teeth, George Washington ran a whiskey still. A very successful one. In 1799 alone, the former president’s operation pumped out 11,000 gallons of liquid gold, making it the largest distillery in the young nation. But, there was more to Washington’s business portfolio than booze. He also operated a large gristmill that produced flour and cornmeal for export abroad. Stop by Mount Vernon, which is south of Alexandria, to learn more about Washington’s entrepreneurial side. Costumed distillers and mill operators bring the facility to life, while an in-depth exhibit on the building’s second floor sheds more light on the man’s life. There’s even a period gift shop, where you can purchase colonial-themed jellies, toys, cornmeal and, yes, some of that presidential whiskey.

King Barn Dairy MOOseum
Location: Boyds, Md.
Open: Saturdays & fourth Sunday of each month (through October)
Admission: Free

Located just outside of Germantown in Boyds, Md., the MOOseum eschews the stuffy atmosphere of traditional exhibit halls in favor of a more down-to-earth vibe. And, by that, I mean you may come across some cow poop. This dairy heritage museum – located on a real, 350-acre dairy farm – recounts the history of milk production in Montgomery County, demonstrating the route that your glass of 2% takes from Ol’ Bessie to your breakfast table. Attractions include various artifacts related to dairy production, an extensive photo collection and a map tracing the histories of more than 300 MoCo dairy farms. On special days, you’ll find live dairy cows on-site and organizers demonstrating some of the dairy farmer’s favorite pastimes, like milking, cheese making and ice-cream making.

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