Most visitors heading to Washington for Barack Obama's swearing-in will see the new president in the same way as their compatriots at home—on a television screen. But just as being here for the inauguration gives a taste of the country's political future, it can also give an introduction to the presidential past.
After a two-year, $85 million renovation, the National Museum of American History reopened in November. George Washington's mess kit, Caroline Harrison's 1889 inaugural gown, and a banner celebrating Thomas Jefferson's victory in 1800 are all here, but many visitors will head straight for the new, permanent display of the flag that inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner"—or, to be precise, for the Disney World-like line required to see it. Particularly presidential collections include "First Ladies at the Smithsonian," reopening December 19 with its 14 dresses, and "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," displaying more than 900 objects related to the White House's past occupants.
Just in time for the inauguration, the museum is launching an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln's life, including everything from his trademark stovepipe hat to the wedge he used to split wood in 1830s Illinois. There will also be a display of 10 rare documents that are usually held in the library in Springfield, Ill., including a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In fact, Lincoln is all over the District for the inauguration, and not just because his phrase "a new birth of freedom" is the inauguration's theme. February also marks the bicentennial of his birth. The National Portrait Gallery charts Lincoln's evolution from youthful congressman to worn-out president in "One Life: The Mask of Lincoln" through the new medium of the day—photography. Starting March 8, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum is running an exhibit on Lincoln's second inaugural ball, which took place in its building; on January 31, the museum hosts a re-creation of the ball's dances by the Victorian Dance Ensemble. And guided tours of Lincoln's Cottage, his beloved country home where he was just the day before his assassination, are available year-round. (Buying a ticket in advance is strongly recommended).
For those who have a car, there's also the option to visit Manassas Battlefield Park, 30 miles to the west of the District, where the first major battle of the Civil War took place in 1861. Walking tours are available, and a museum offers displays of Civil War uniforms, weapons, and other gear.
Opportunities to learn about leaders other than Lincoln also abound. The National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Presidents in Waiting" offers up the 14 men who served as vice presidents before moving into the position at the top. The museum's permanent exhibit, "America's Presidents", is the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. And at the National Museum of the American Indian, an exhibit focusing on the involvement of six Indian chiefs in Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade unveils January 14.
For visitors who'd rather learn how presidents lived than parse their facial expressions, D.C. offers more presidential residences than just the White House. The Octagon Museum, the nation's oldest museum of architecture and design, housed James and Dolley Madison after the White House was burned in 1814. As the White House was being rebuilt, James Monroe lived at the Monroe House; he hosted his inaugural ball there. The Woodrow Wilson House Museum was home to the World War I president after he left office and today holds a collection of his furniture, books, and art.