5 totally cool and unusual Maryland museums

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MuseumsStreetCarWBy Katie Riley

One Saturday, Jennifer Hutchins found herself gazing out the window of an authentic antique streetcar, riding the rails of Baltimore City with her two delighted sons, just as a family may have in 1930.

Hutchins of Crofton had discovered The Baltimore Streetcar Museum, one of the area's best-kept secrets for families. While there are plenty of well-known museums in the area, from the Air and Space Museum to Port Discovery, the Baltimore-Washington area also has a number of lesser-known, more unusual museums perfect for families seeking a fun, educational outing.

 If your family is ready for a new adventure, check out one of these museums.

Skip to Where and when to visit to get the details on each museum.

The Baltimore Streetcar Museum

With more than a half dozen antique streetcars, visitors of all ages can take unlimited rides in a genuine wooden streetcar, restored to its former glory.

"It was a great lesson for me," Hutchins says. "I had no idea how vital streetcars were to city life."

Before the widespread use of automobiles, streetcars were essential to the workings of city life, and Baltimore was no exception. Streetcars, also known as trams or trolleys, are vehicles that operate on rails in urban areas. Cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans still rely on streetcars as a major means of public transportation. With a network running as far west as Ellicott City and as far south as Curtis Bay, Baltimore's streetcars served as the primary transportation of the city until the 1950s — and this museum is a tribute to those days gone by.

"Without streetcars, Baltimore would have never grown the way it did," says museum volunteer Jerry Kelly. "Streetcars allowed expansion throughout the city and surrounding counties."

Today, visitors can appreciate the charm of the beautifully restored cars by riding on various models on the mile and half of track operable from the museum just north of the city. Inside the visitors' center and museum, see an authentic dispatcher's office and streetcar mock-up, complete with a built-in theater. Browse the historic displays, a timeline and photos documenting the streetcar's role in the development of Baltimore City.

National Museum of Health and Medicine

Have a budding Dr. Oz in your family? Take a close-up look at the inner workings of the body at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring. In operation since 1862, the museum began as a military installation to preserve Civil War artifacts and continues today as one of the greatest collections of medical history.

Civil War buffs will appreciate the exhibit dedicated to soldiers and their injuries, but it is the Lincoln exhibit that will capture the attention of visitors of all ages. Read Lincoln's autopsy report, view fragments of his bones, and see the actual bullet that ended his life.

"It is truly a fascinating place," says Melissa Brachfeld, the museum's public affairs specialist. "Not only will families learn about the importance of military medicine and medicine, in general, but they will also get to see firsthand medical and surgical kits from the Civil War, the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, startling examples of traumatic brain injuries and more."

National Cryptologic Museum

When Andy Moore decided to take his Calvert Hall history class to the National Cryptological Museum last spring, he knew it was important for his students to see firsthand one of the most significant devices in the history of national security: the Enigma machine.

"The Enigma machine played a huge role in World War II," Moore says. "It's unbelievable that this piece of history is still operable and is right in our backyard."

Used by Germans to create codes for communicating tactical decisions during World War II, the Enigma machine was later captured by the Allies and played a critical role in the Allied victory. The machine is still operable today and can be viewed at the museum based at the NSA headquarters on Ft. Meade.

The museum also houses Cold War era satellites and authentic supercomputers, such as "The Thinking Machine" which has a total storage capacity of 500 billion words (500 gigawords) and can perform 65 billion calculations per second. NSA used the supercomputer in the early 1990s to perform higher-level math calculations.

Young visitors can participate in the Crypto-Kids Challenge, which prompts them to go to a series of life-size cartoon characters throughout the museum to solve a cryptologic puzzle presented at each location, where they can turn in their results for prizes. Geared towards middle- and high school-aged students, the museum seeks to give kids a greater appreciation of the important role of math and science in solving real-world problems, particularly cryptologic ones.

"We hope that anyone who visits the NCM will take away one indelible impression: Namely, that the making and breaking of codes has played a critical role throughout the history of humankind, and that it continues to play a vital role in protecting our nation in this day and age," says Museum Curator Patrick Weadon.

Click Next below for two more cool and unusual museums.


National Capital Radio and Television Museum

A different kind of code breaking takes place at the National Capital Radio and Television Museum in Bowie. Kids can take advantage of the on-site educational program, which includes listening to a segment of the "Little Orphan Annie" radio program. With the "Secret Decoder Badge" provided by the museum, young visitors can crack the code at the end of the radio program, just like millions of American children did more than 80 years ago.

Listen to the dance bands of the 1920s on an authentic 1922 crystal radio or watch a vintage television show from the 1950s on the many restored television sets. Kids can also learn a little something, like the fact that their cellphones are nothing more than advanced transistor radios. That's what Brian Belanger, executive director of the museum, informed a group of young visitors on a recent visit.

"Families will gain an appreciation of how technology has evolved over the past 100 years," Belanger says. "We would not have all this wonderful technology if not for what has come before it."

Geppi's Entertainment Museum

Before television, or even radio, kids found amusement in comic books, and many originals can be seen at Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Camden Station in Baltimore.

The museum is a destination for visitors of all ages, housing entertainment memorabilia from the past 200 years, such as the display of Felix the Cat from the 1800s and an exhibit dedicated to the earliest incarnations of Mickey Mouse. Kids can view the comic in which Batman first appears, as well as see an original Action Comics No. 1, which introduced the world to Superman.

The museum is rife with interactive features such as a digital kiosk, where visitors can read the original comics, and a treasure hunt where kids can hunt for clues in each exhibit throughout the museum.

"Geppi's is a great place for families to have fun, but a visit can also create a dialogue among generations," says Associate Curator Andy Hershberger. "The recognition of so many iconic figures inevitably causes visitors of all ages to say, 'Wow, I had that as a kid!'"

Where and when to visit

Baltimore Streetcar Museum
1901 Falls Road, Baltimore
Admission: Adults $10, children $8, children under 4 free
Hours: Sundays (March-December): noon-5 p.m., Saturdays (June-October) noon-5 p.m.
Phone: 410-547-0264

National Museum of Health and Medicine
2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring
Admission: Free
Hours: Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas
Phone: 301-319-3303

National Cryptological Museum
NSA Headquarters, Ft. George Meade
8290 Colony Seven Road, Annapolis Junction
Admission: Free
Hours: Monday-Friday 
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturdays 
(first and third of the month) 
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Closed Sundays and 
federal holidays.
Phone: 301-688-5849

National Capital Radio and Television Museum
2608 Mitchellville Road, Bowie
Admission: Free
Hours: Fridays 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12-4 p.m.
Phone: 301-390-1020

Geppi's Entertainment Museum
301 W. Camden St., Baltimore
Admission: General $10, seniors $9, students $7, children free
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Open during most home Baltimore Orioles games, except Mondays.
Phone: 410-625-7060

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Updated June 2017

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