For fans of history a well-presented museum brings the past to life. Museums inform, entertain, and allow visitors to enter a different world. Some living museums, including Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, are entertainment and tourist destinations, as well as windows to the past. Other museums, including the ten presented here, are intended to educate as well as challenge visitors to confront the past, as well as celebrate it.
The museums described here were selected for their depictions of areas which have a continuing impact on American life. The United States has, according to the federal government, over 35,000 active museums, many highly specialized. Here are ten which every history buff should visit. Most will want to visit them more than once.
10. Ellis Island National Immigration Museum: New York, New York
In 2009, The History Channel estimated that 40% of the extant population of the United States can trace their ancestry to immigrants who arrived on American shores through the facilities on Ellis Island, in the shadow of New York City. The island itself has long been the subject of controversy. Both New York and New Jersey have claimed jurisdiction. In 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that most of the island is in New Jersey, though New York retains about 16%, and the entire island is administered by the federal government.
America’s long and frequently sordid immigration history is displayed for public education. Included are the periods of mass detentions and deportations, experimentation with eugenics including sterilization of “defectives”, and other activities ignored by history textbooks. The museum also addresses the longstanding myth that some immigrants had name changes forced upon them by administrators experiencing difficulties with foreign pronunciations and spellings.
The National Immigration Museum includes displays which address the gamut of immigration to the land of the free, including before, during and after the era when Ellis Island provided the main gateway into the United States. Unless one can trace one’s heritage to the Mayflower, it likely represents part of one’s own past.
9. The Mariners’ Museum and Park: Newport News, Virginia
From its inception, the United States was and remains a maritime nation. Trade with the mother country enabled the early colonies to survive, and eventually thrive. Americans went to sea to trade with other nations, with their fellow states, and to harvest the riches found in the oceans. Vast fortunes were made from whaling and fishing, trading and shipbuilding, exploration and colonization. The Mariner’s Museum celebrates those who went to sea, and the ships which carried them.
The Mariners’ Museum’s collection is international in scope, fittingly as international trade helped shape American history. It includes a large collection of seamen’s art, including the scrimshaw produced by whalers in their off-hours, and the figureheads which once graced the prows of seagoing vessels. Civil War buffs find a large display of artifacts from USS Monitor. Working maritime steam engines can be viewed, as well as sextants, octants, and other navigational instruments and aids.
Congress has recognized the Mariner’s Museum as the official museum of America’s seagoing history, though it displays art and artifacts from nations around the world. The life of sailors at sea is displayed as it changed over the centuries, including in the museum’s restrooms, which offer descriptions and displays of the facilities once offered to sailors in the days before modern plumbing.
8. The National Museum of the United States Air Force: Dayton, Ohio
One would expect a museum dedicated to the United States Air Force to contain famous American warplanes, and one visiting here would not be disappointed. The famed World War II B-17 known as Memphis Belle is displayed here. So is Bockscar, the B-29 which dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. The Doolittle Raid is celebrated here, and the aircraft of enemy nations during the World Wars are also available for viewing.
There are also displays focused on early aviation, including the wind tunnel designed and hand-built by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Though a replica of the original, Orville Wright supervised its construction. Exhibits allow visitors to experience landing the Space Shuttle, inspect Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft, and view numerous rockets and missiles used for space exploration and national defense. More than 360 aircraft, aerospace vehicles, missiles, and rockets are displayed in the museum’s galleries and on its grounds.
The history of aviation is traced from its earliest days (including designs by Leonardo Da Vinci) to its speculated future within the museum. Nearby, visitors can see the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Both facilities offer educational tours and support. For those fascinated with the history of aviation in general, and military aviation in particular, the National Museum of the United States Air Force is a definite must-see.
7. The B & O Railroad Museum: Baltimore, Maryland
In the early days of the United States emerging technology focused on transportation and the steam engine. Steam propelled the boats plying American canals and rivers, and the locomotives which drove America railroads. The railroads changed the world. It was the railroads which bored tunnels through the mountains, bridged gorges and rivers, and connected America’s new western towns with the market centers of the east. One of the earliest and biggest was the Baltimore and Ohio, chartered to connect Baltimore with the Ohio River at Wheeling, then in Virginia.
The B & O grew to become one of America’s largest and most powerful businesses, connecting the eastern cities with Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and points in between. The B & O Museum in Baltimore depicts that history. Fans of baseball will recognize it as the building which looms over right field at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. Within the building and its adjuncts is the most comprehensive railroad museum in the world. Camden Yards itself was once the hub of B & O activity, linking the railroad to the port of Baltimore.
Though obviously focused on railroads, the B & O Museum traces the history of American industry, technology, and western expansion from the 1820s through the present day. A visit to the museum is a definite must for anyone interested in American history.
6. The National WWII Museum: New Orleans, Louisiana
From its name, one expects the National World War II Museum to display artifacts explaining America’s role in the Second World War. It does. But it also depicts American life during the years in which the war was fought. Radio programs which entertained Americans during the war years are celebrated. Propaganda posters which urged Americans to support the war effort are displayed. Rationing and War Bond drives are represented and displayed.
The totality of the war effort, from the contributions by the Merchant Marine to the efforts of entertainers and film producers to promote morale are prominent in the museum. Daily life on the home front is explored in detail, from recipes to help housewives feeding their families during rationing to maintaining aging automobiles when new vehicles were not to be had.
Of course, the war, in all its theaters, is covered extensively and in detail. The focus is on the human side, rather than the strategies, dates, and battles, though those too are covered in displays, artifacts, films, and interactive exhibits. If one wants to learn about World War II, the museum offers comprehensive information regarding the most significant and world shaking event of the 20th century.
5. Alcatraz East Crime Museum: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
In 2016 the National Museum of Crime and Punishment relocated from Washington DC to Pigeon Forge, where it opened as the Alcatraz East Crime Museum. The name comes from the prison theme of the building in which it is housed. Its displays depict the long and lamentable history of crime in the United States, and the evolution of law enforcement to control and contain it. How crimes are committed and how law enforcement solves them and brings its perpetrators to justice are two themes explored in the museum’s exhibits.
Among the exhibits is a rosary once used by Al Capone, though the image of Capone praying the rosary is somewhat absurd. Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen Beetle is on display. So is the Ford Bronco which carried OJ Simpson during his televised flight from police in 1994. Also on display, though not used in a real crime, is the “leetle fren” brandished by Al Pacino in the film Scarface.
Both historical and educational, Alcatraz East explains crime scene investigation through a CSI laboratory, the history and art of safecracking, and famous crimes and how they were resolved. The evolution of the American prison system, including the federal prison at Alcatraz, is also displayed. Alcatraz East displays real pieces of evidence used in solving and prosecuting historic crimes, and presents displays explaining the history of the US justice system.
4. The Museum of Science and Industry: Chicago, Illinois
Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is housed in the last surviving building erected as part of Jackson Park’s Great White City for the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. It opened in 1933, and displays both historical artifacts and contemporary science and technology. For example, a visitor can view exhibits tracing the evolution of agriculture in America alongside displays of how current farmers use GPS and drones to monitor crops and herds.
History buffs can explore a World War II German U-boat, U-505, and learn how an American task force captured it in the Atlantic. The first diesel-electric stainless steel streamlined passenger train, the Pioneer Zephyr, allows visitors to enter its cars and cab and learn how it revolutionized railroading. One hall contains an extensive collection of ship models, another automobiles and race cars, and another one of the largest model railroad setups to be found anywhere.
One of the museum’s exhibits includes the entry shaft to a coal mine, allowing visitors to experience a coal mine and its workings in the pre-World War II era. Dedicated to science and technology, and their industrial and agricultural uses, the museum offers many interactive exhibits which celebrate history, explain the present, and predict the future.
3. National Museum of American History: Washington DC
As its name attests, this is the museum which explores all of American history, including culture, technology, military, industry, medical, and scientific achievement. Here a visitor can see the huge American flag which flew over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. An entire colonial house, built before the American Revolution, is displayed within the museum.
A hall dedicated to each of the American Presidents, with their histories, can be viewed as well as another dedicated to their First Ladies. Archie Bunker’s chair, from the set of the television series All in the Family, is in the museum. So are a pair of ruby slippers made for Judy Garland for her role as Dorothy Gale in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
The lunch counter which served as the scene for the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in protest against segregation in 1960 is displayed. Nearby is Julia Child’s kitchen. A hall dedicated to the history of musical instruments includes 18th century instruments by Stradivari, scores of music boxes, and the Yellow Cloud, a signature guitar used by Prince. This museum covers all of American history and as with all of the Smithsonian Institution’s Washington DC area museums (and the National Zoo) there is no charge for admission.
2. Greenfield Village: Detroit, Michigan
When it opened to the public in 1933, Greenfield Village represented the first outdoor living museum in the United States. A collection of restored or rebuilt homes, shops, laboratories, factories, farm buildings, and other structures, it covers 90 acres. Here one can visit the home in which Henry Ford grew up. Harvey Firestone’s (Firestone Tire and Rubber) farm was moved to the village in 1983, and since 1985 operates as a sheep farm on the site. The Wright Brothers bicycle shop was relocated from Dayton Ohio to the village in 1937. Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratories was reconstructed on the site it now occupies beginning in 1928.
The museum was and is intended to allow visitors to not only see but experience how Americans lived, worked, and played throughout the nation’s history. Costumed employees demonstrate era-appropriate skills such as glass blowing, pottery making, planting and harvesting crops, and other aspects of industry. A village green presents games demonstrated by employees according to the season. Visitors may ride in Ford Model Ts, trains pulled by steam locomotives, and a rare Ford AA motorbus.
Greenfield Village is open during the Christmas season, though it closes for most of the winter due to its location and the severe weather often experienced in the region. As an interactive representation of American history, focused on American life as it changed over the decades, it is unsurpassed. Its founder, Henry Ford, included Greenfield Village as part of his goal to display, “…American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition”.
1. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation: Detroit, Michigan
Beginning around 1906 Henry Ford began collecting historic objects and artifacts. In the mid-1920s he decided to build a museum to house his collection, and future items to be obtained, dedicated to the support of education. In 1929 the museum opened as the Edison Institute, dedicated to Ford’s longtime friend and camping partner, Thomas Edison. President Herbert Hoover, another longtime friend, presided over the ceremonies. It opened to the general public several years later, as a museum.
Since then, the museum has expanded to include more than 26 million artifacts. It displays items from American culture, automotive history, aviation history, manufacturing, fast food, camping, postcards, road signs, the World Wars, and virtually all aspects of American innovation. Where else can one view the history of McDonald’s as well as the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? Nearby is a bus from which Rosa Parks triggered protests, as well as the limousine in which President Kennedy rode in Dallas Texas in November, 1963. A camping exhibit depicts Ford, Edison, Firestone, and others camping, with President Warren G. Harding joining them on one such trip.
The Henry Ford Museum, combined with Greenfield Village, represents the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in the United States. George Washington’s camp bed used during the Revolutionary War is there. So is the original Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. For automobile aficionados, the Henry Ford includes, appropriately, the first Ford Mustang convertible ever produced. The obviously diverse contents of its exhibits are entirely focused on Americana, and probably no museum anywhere has a more eclectic display.