Road trip!

August is prime vacation time, so this month we’re loading up the metaphorical minivan and heading out on a Smithsonian family road trip.


As I was planning for my own summer vacation later this month, I got to thinking about all the families who, over the years, have piled into the family car each summer to make a road trip to Washington to visit the nation’s capital, including the Smithsonian museums. I don’t have to travel very far to visit the Smithsonian but I was reminded that the road trip—to visit family or to see the sights—is the most American of vacations. What if I could take a reverse Smithsonian road trip to visit our visitors in their neighborhoods?

Perhaps nothing embodies America’s love affair with the road trip more than the iconic Route 66.Dubbed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 and ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, creating connections between hundreds of small towns in the American Southwest.  I have taken that route more than once, driving from college and medical school in Chicago back home to LA, and then back again.

In the 1920s and 1930s, new highways began to have a profound effect on American lives. Some took to the road to leave the Dust Bowl of the Depression era to migrate to California’s land of opportunity. Some saw their opportunity to earn a living by catering to travelers in search of motor hotels to stay the night and a have quick bite at roadside restaurants.

While not the first long-distance highway, or the most traveled, Route 66 gained fame beyond almost any other road, inspiring both a popular TV show and a song that was a hit for multiple recording artists. Our American mythology of the lure of the highway has always symbolized opportunity, but not always for everyone. Many of the businesses springing up alongside the new highways refused service to African Americans. Many of the small communities traversed by Route 66 were all-white “Sundown Towns” that banned blacks from entering after dark. Our mission is to tell the stories of all Americans, so it’s appropriate that the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service is currently planning an exhibition about the “Green Book,” a guidebook used by black motorists to find safe accommodations on the road.

Map of Route 66

Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s. It ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, creating connections between hundreds of small towns and providing a trucking route through the Southwest. The highway was officially decommissioned in 1985.

We can’t actually travel the long-since decommissioned Route 66, but we can search for some of Smithsonian’s America by visiting some Smithsonian Affiliates along most of its former route. For more than two decades, Smithsonian Affiliations has established collaborative relationships between the Smithsonian and local museum, education, and cultural organizations in communities across America. Along with the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, SA facilitates the loan of Smithsonian artifacts and exhibitions and helps create local and national educational initiatives.

“From Maine to Montana, in towns big and small, learners of all ages can experience the Smithsonian through our network of more than 200 Affiliate partners,” says Myriam Springuel, Director of Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Smithsonian Affiliations. “Affiliates represent the breadth and depth of America’s history and diversity and like Route 66, connect our nation’s local stories to tell a national narrative.”

We won’t be able to visit them all, but hop in and let’s take a ride to discover the Smithsonian’s America.


Adler Planetarium, Chicago, Illinois
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2006

Our first stop in Chicago takes us to the famous Adler Planetarium on the northeast tip of Northerly Island on the shore of Lake Michigan. Founded in 1930 by Chicago businessman Max Adler, the Adler was the first planetarium in the western hemisphere. With a mission to inspire exploration and understanding of the universe, the Adler plays an important role in science education and inspires young people—particularly women and minorities—to pursue careers in science. The Adler houses one of the world’s finest collections of astronomical artifacts, including treasures such as the world’s oldest known window sundial (dated 1529) and a telescope made by William Herschel. Its Shoot for the Moon exhibition begins with astronaut Jim Lovell’s life and career, featuring memorabilia and the fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft, on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, Elmhurst, Illinois
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2008

In the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, the Lizzadro Museum displays gemstone treasures—antiques to modern—with a blending of earth science. Founded in 1962 by Joseph F. Lizzadro, Sr., who immigrated to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s, the museum reflects his lifelong interest in lapidary—the art of cutting and polishing stones—with a special fondness for jade. The Lizzadro collaborated with Smithsonian curators to bring together the 2014 exhibition Modern Designer Jewelry from the Smithsonian, which featured pieces created by award-winning designers on loan from the gem vault of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In addition, the museum has hosted Smithsonian gemologists as guest speakers.


Saint Louis Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2016

Leaving Chicago behind, we cross the mighty Mississippi to arrive in St. Louis, where our first stop is the Saint Louis Science Center, which traces its roots to the Academy of Science of St. Louis, founded in 1856 as the first scientific organization west of the Mississippi River. The Center is the first Smithsonian Affiliate in the St. Louis area.

The Saint Louis Science Center provides meaningful science learning opportunities for its community. After several stages of renovation and expansion, it now comprises more than 700 interactive exhibitions in ten galleries. The latest addition is GROW—an indoor/outdoor exhibition exploring the journey of our food supply from farm to fork. In addition, visitors can see several historic artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, observe science in action through Amazing Science Demonstrations at CenterStage, enjoy a film at the OMNIMAX Theater, and gaze at the stars at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium. The NASM and SITES exhibition Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission is on view at the Saint Louis Science Center through Sept. 3.

American Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Missouri
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2000

Although not technically on the way along Route 66, we’re not leaving Missouri without a side trip to Kansas City to visit the American Jazz Museum. Located in the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, the museum showcases the sights and sounds of jazz through interactive exhibitions, films and live performances. Opened in 1997, the American Jazz Museum is the only museum in the world solely focused on the preservation, exhibition, and advancement of jazz music as an original American art form. As a Smithsonian Affiliate, the museum has showcased music-related exhibitions from the Smithsonian and has also served as a host site for National Youth Summit events, in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, and other Smithsonian Affiliations museums.

Jazz band in performance

The American Jazz Museum regularly presents free performances throughout Kansas City. The Louis Neal Big Band (pictured) was formed in the mid-1990s and consists of Kansas City’s finest jazz musicians. They performed July 30 at the Blue Room Jazz Club under the auspices of the American jazz Museum. (Photo via American Jazz Museum)


Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2000

At the Oklahoma History Center, visitors can discover the people and stories that make Oklahoma truly unique: the history of oil and gas exploration, the hardships of the Great Dust Bowl, the heroism of early aviators and astronauts, and the enduring presence of American Indians. With four permanent galleries and a special exhibits hall, the Center offers more than 200 hands-on activities, covering 50 subjects. Exhibition highlights include the Gemini 6 space capsule—on loan from the National Air and Space Museum—and featured collections from the National Museum of American Indian.

Poster for movie musical Oklahoma

The Oklahoma History Center’s exhibit, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!: The Birth of Modern Musical Theatre and a New Image for the State is currently on view and celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Broadway production’s debut. (Photo via Oklahoma History Center)


Frontiers of Flight Museum, Dallas, Texas
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2002

Since we don’t yet have an affiliate in the Texas panhandle we’ll make a stop in Dallas to visit the Frontiers of Flight Museum. In 1963, George Haddaway, a noted aviation historian, donated his enormous collection of artifacts and archival materials to The University of Texas, forming the basis of what would become the Frontiers of Flight Museum in 1988. Currently, more than 30 aircraft and extensive display galleries draw aviation buffs, school groups, and families to the museum, where visitors can take a chronological walk through the development of human flight, from Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute to space exploration. Collection highlights include early biplanes, historically important aircraft, artifacts related to aviation during World War II, objects revealing the history of Southwest Airlines, and numerous commercial airline artifacts. In addition, two loan items from the National Air and Space Museum are also on view: the unique test aircraft Vought V-173 “Flying Pancake” and an Apollo 7 command module.


The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2002

Back on track, we continue along Route 66 to New Mexico with a stop to learn more about how humans learned to split the atom. Formerly the National Atomic Museum, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque was established in 1969 in an old anti-aircraft gun repair facility on the grounds of Kirtland Air Force Base. Originally staffed by U.S. Air Force personnel and employees of Sandia National Laboratories, by 1991, the museum was chartered by Congress as a national museum for visitors to learn about the Atomic Age, from early research of nuclear development through today’s uses of nuclear technology. Through permanent and changing exhibitions and displays, the museum presents stories of the field’s pioneers and the diverse applications of nuclear energy in the past, present, and future, allowing visitors to explore how nuclear science continues to influence our world.

Two boys loading toy rockets with parachutes

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History hosts “Science is Everywhere” summer camps for children who are 6 to 12 years old. These themed, week-long camps are designed to be both highly educational and fun for all. This year’s sessions include “Hey, Can I Take that Apart?,” “Code of the Robot,” “The Upside Down,” “Spy Kids” and more. (Photo via National Museum of Nuclear Science & History)


Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, Arizona
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2016

Tiny Wickenburg, Arizona is the home of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, which was founded in 1960 as a private, non-profit historical society. The museum welcomes and enriches diverse audiences by inspiring an appreciation of the art and history of the American West through creative exhibitions and educational programs that preserve the West’s cultural legacy. The museum’s affiliation with the Smithsonian will give it access to a nationwide network to share its resources and collections.

Museum entrance with banner for exhbition "Cowgirl up"

The Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. (Photo via Pam Sievers)


Our Route 66 road trip has taken us from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. We’ll finish our journey on “The People’s Highway” with stops at two very different cultural centers that honor the American immigrant experience and the diversity of American culture.

Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, California
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2000

Established in 1985, the Japanese American National Museum is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to sharing the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Located in the historic Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, JANM is a hybrid institution that straddles traditional museum categories and strives to provide a voice for Japanese Americans as well as a forum that enables all people to explore their own heritage and culture.

The museum’s scholars contributed to A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution, which opened in 1987 at the National Museum of American History. Since the museum became a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2000, it has continued to collaborate with the Smithsonian, developing educational programming and hosting Smithsonian traveling exhibitions.

Museum exterior with people in plaza

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Watanabe Oshogatsu)

LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Los Angeles, California
Smithsonian Affiliate since 2006

Located near the site where Los Angeles was founded in 1781, LA Plaza’s 2.2-acre campus includes two newly renovated historic buildings surrounded by 30,000 square feet of public garden. LA Plaza’s mission is to celebrate the enduring and evolving influence of Mexican and Mexican American culture; its interactive exhibits and dynamic programs invite visitors to explore as well as contribute to the ongoing story of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and beyond.

The museum has hosted artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History; including the short-handled hoe used by migrant worker and civil rights activist César Chávez.

Short-handled hoe.

A short handled hoe originally owned by Librado Hernandez Chavez, (father of Cesar Estrada Chavez.) The short-handled hoe brings back memories of back-breaking labor for generations of Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers who sustained California’s booming agricultural economy. Since the late 1800s, its expansive fields of produce have relied on a cheap, mobile, and temporary workforce. The short-handled hoe required workers to bend painfully close to the ground to weed and thin crops. The state abolished the short-handled hoe in 1975, ruling it an occupational hazard after a seven-year legal battle. (Photo courtesy National Museum of American History.)

Our Route 66 road trip has taken us from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean as we sampled some of the rich cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage represented by our Smithsonian Affiliates. Thank you for joining me on this journey to find the Smithsonian in your neighborhood. I hope you have a chance to visit some of them in person.

Posted: 8 August 2018
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.