|First, let it be said: Yes, a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, now celebrating its one-year anniversary in D.C., can be immensely creepy. But that’s part of the fun.|
The famed museum has been a fixture in London since 1835, when a touring exhibit founded by Madame Marie Tussaud found a permanent home. Tussaud was well-versed in the school of “wax modeling,” in which wax is used to make an eerie likeness of a person. The skill got her a rather gruesome job — making death masks of French royalty killed by the guillotine in the French Revolution. Now the company does models of celebrities, sports figures and politicians. The process takes three months and involves thousands of measurements of the model, along with painting (all tattoos are hand-painted), inserting real human hair for locks, and dressing the model (often celebrities will lend their own clothes for the figure.)
The D.C. museum begins with a movie about the history of the Madame Tussaud’s, and then it’s time to start getting weirded out. The first section is historical, with figures of King George III, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others. Interaction with the figures is encouraged — Lincoln is sitting in his Ford’s Theater Box, with an empty seat next to him, waiting for visitors. Photography is part of the point; you can touch the figures, put your arm around them; you’re just asked not to get too rough (according to the guidebook, Brad Pitt’s shirt collar must be almost continually cleaned, thanks to lipstick marks.)
But it’s not all bear hugs with George Washington. There are computerized quizzes throughout all the exhibits; each figure also has a plaque with facts about the person’s life. Is it the most thorough lesson in American history? No. But a kid may pay more attention to Martin Luther King when she can stand next to “him” while listening to the “I Have a Dream Speech.” When you sit on a bus seat next to the Rosa Parks figure, a voice booms out, telling you to get up and move.
The political section is great for wonky Washingtonians. You find that Richard Nixon was really short, while George H.W. Bush is really tall. Interactivity is fun here; there’s a podium where you can get your picture taken as you deliver a presidential speech — Secret Service agents flank you for your protection. You can also get a shot behind the desk in the Oval Office, or wave to the crowds with Bill and Hillary Clinton. There’s a figure of Bob Woodward and an exhibit on the Watergate Scandal, although instead of a computer screen, the quiz is set up like a microfiche, so you can explain to your kids how we did research before the verb “to google” was invented.
The entertainment section is the most fun. The newly-arrived Jonas Brothers occupy center stage (there’s an empty set of drums and a loose guitar, there to encourage posing with the boys. In fact, many of the rooms have costumes visitors are encouraged to try on so their pictures look more authentic.) Angelina and Brad are there, as is Tom Cruise and Beyoncé. Some old-school performers, like Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, are also ready for visitors.
There’s a small sports section, including Babe Ruth, Evander Holyfield and Tiger Woods (complete with prop putter for pictures.) The details are really extraordinary — Holyfield is, in fact, missing part of his right ear.
The staffers are quite friendly and personable, and will take your picture gladly (there is a charge to buy the Oval Office picture, however.) They’re also happy to answer any questions, including this reporter’s inquiry as to whether they walked around freaking out all the time, thanks to the eyes constantly staring at them. (Answer: You get used to it.)
Kids under seven may not get much out of the museum. But once they’re assimilating pop culture and have taken their first lessons in American history, they’d probably get a kick of getting their picture taken with J. Lo or Robert E. Lee. A tour, assuming you read most of the plaques and play most of the games, would probably run around an hour and a half.
There’s no restaurant, although there are snack and drink machines at the end of the tour, and the neighborhood, a short walk to Chinatown, lacks for nothing in terms of food choices. Both men’s and women’s restrooms have baby changing stations. Strollers are welcome.
Madame Tussaud’s is located at 10th and F Streets NW, Washington. Metro-accessible (Metro Center). Ticket prices vary; a package for a family of four is available. See madametussauds.com/Washington to buy tickets at an online discount.
By Kristen Page-Kirby
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