10 Must-See American Museums

Featured Article, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on April 2, 2013
Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum

Thousands of museums dot the United States—chronicling, conserving and commemorating the nation’s artistic, cultural, historical and scientific legacy. Here are 10 museums of national significance that provide a glimpse into the American experience.

National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame
Bonner Springs, Kan.

A walking plow used by President Harry S. Truman, the first Future Farmers of America uniform and a 1919 Waterloo Boy N, considered the original two-cylinder John Deere tractor, help tell the story of America’s farming heritage. Antique tractors, threshing machines and hay balers are among the farm equipment displayed in the museum, chartered by Congress in 1960. Visitors can climb aboard a 14-inch gauge railroad to tour the 150-acre complex, which includes the National Poultry Museum, a blacksmith shop, general store and restored farmhouse.

National Automobile Museum
Reno, Nev.

A red-and-white 1907 Thomas Flyer, which traveled 22,000 miles to win the epic 1908 New York to Paris Race, enjoys prime parking space inside the museum, which features more than 200 rare and valuable cars, most part of the world-class collection of gaming industry pioneer William F. Harrah. An 1892 steam-powered Philion, one of the oldest existing American-built automobiles, a 1937 experimental Airomobile, a sleek 1938 Phantom Corsair, Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia and Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Coupe help chronicle the automobile’s history and impact on society. The museum opened in 1989.

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Cooperstown, N.Y.

The shrine to America’s national pastime is a grand slam featuring nearly 40,000 artifacts, 500,000 photographs and 3 million books and documents that tell the story of baseball’s greatest players, teams and moments throughout history. Opened in 1939 by Cooperstown philanthropist Stephen C. Clark, the three-story museum includes a timeline, from the game’s roots in the 1840s to present day, with special exhibits about 19th-century baseball, the Negro Leagues, women and Latin American players. Babe Ruth’s bat from his record-setting 60th home run in 1927, Hank Aaron’s uniform from his 715th career home run, and a Hall of Fame gallery honoring top players, managers, umpires and executives are among the major-league attractions.

National Civil Rights Museum
Memphis, Tenn.

Built around the Lorraine Motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the museum chronicles African-Americans’ struggle for freedom and justice. Photographs, newspaper accounts and three-dimensional scenes illustrate monumental moments in the movement: the 13th Amendment (1865) outlawing slavery; the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) ending the “separate, but equal” doctrine; Rosa Parks’ bus boycott (1955) in Montgomery, Ala.; forced integration by federal troops of Little Rock (Ark.) High School (1957); and demonstrations, sit-ins, peaceful marches and voter-registration campaigns during the 1960s. The nonprofit Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, which opened the museum in 1991, plans renovations this year to the Lorraine Motel.

National Civil War Museum
Harrisburg, Pa.

The nation’s bloodiest conflict, including its causes, casualties and consequences, is documented with more than 24,000 artifacts, photographs, manuscripts and other printed materials. Popular exhibits include Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Bible inscribed in his hand: “R.E. Lee, City of Mexico, Sept. 1847,” and found under his ransacked wagon four days before he surrendered in Appomattox, Va.; a leather glove worn by Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson; and a Union uniform belonging to Lt. Philo Hersey. Opened in 2001, the museum was founded by former Harrisburg mayor and Civil War buff Stephen R. Reed.

National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.

Paintings of the first five U.S. presidents by early America’s foremost portraitist Gilbert Stuart are among the treasures exhibited at the free museum, a gift to the nation from financier and art collector Andrew W. Mellon. Holdings include American masterpieces “Lavender Mist” by Jackson Pollock, “The Hobby Horse” by Deacon Robert Peckham, “Green Marilyn” by Andy Warhol, “Home, Sweet Home” by Winslow Homer and photographs from 20th-century photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. A 76-foot-long Alexander Calder mobile graces the atrium in the Gallery’s East Building. The museum, dedicated in 1941, counts among its world-class collection the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci, titled “Ginevra de’ Benci,” in the Western hemisphere.

National Museum of the American Indian
Washington, D.C.

More than a thousand tribal communities from the Western Hemisphere are represented in the Smithsonian museum, opened in 2004 as the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of native Americans. About 1 percent of the objects in its collection of 800,000 items are on view at any given time. A full-size hand-painted 19th-century Lakota tipi, beaded regalia for horses, Geronimo’s and Chief Joseph’s rifles, and a “wall of gold” featuring 400 figurines, swords, crosses and coins made of gold, dating from before 1491, are among popular exhibits.

National Museum of Play
Rochester, N.Y.

The home of the National Toy Hall of Fame blends history with the happy buzz of a children’s museum as visitors whirl on a restored 1918 carousel and hopscotch down Sesame Street. Opened in 1982 with the personal collection of Margaret Woodbury Strong, the museum boasts hundreds of thousands of toys, dolls, board and electronic games, books, photographs and historical material related to play. Treasures include an 1890s singing doll made by Thomas Edison, an 1843 Mansion of Happiness board game and a 1933 Monopoly game handmade by Charles Darrow, who first marketed the game.

National Music Museum
Vermillion, S.D.

A complete workshop with tools, templates, molds and ledgers used by guitar craftsmen John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto is the centerpiece of the museum’s “Great American Guitars” exhibit featuring instruments by top American guitar makers and companies, including E.F. Martin, Orville Gibson, Fender and Grammer. Other American-made instruments showcased in the vast 15,000-instrument collection include 19th-century ornate reed organs made by Packard in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Cornish in Washington, N.J.; and 500 horns and other band instruments made by the C.G. Conn Co. in Elkhart, Ind. For lighthearted notes, the museum displays a combination crutch and electric lap steel guitar made for country artist Barbara Mandrell after a leg injury and the heart-shaped trumpet from the 1978 movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

National World War II Museum
New Orleans, La.

Soldiers’ letters, an air raid shelter and a Sherman tank bring to life how and why World War II was fought and won, and how it affected Americans. Founded by historian and author Stephen Ambrose, the museum showcases the 1930s prelude to war, the Normandy Invasion and battles of the Pacific Island. Highlights include a reproduction Louisiana-built Higgins boat, the landing craft that carried U.S. soldiers to shore in every major amphibious assault. In the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, visitors get a close-up look at ongoing restorations of wartime vehicles and weapons. Opened in 2000, the museum was designated the nation’s official World War II museum by Congress in 2003.