New Amelia Earhart museum gleams with the energy, innovation and bravery of its Kansas-born subject

April 13, 2023 3:33 am

The centerpiece of the new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum in Atchison is the plane Muriel, named for Earhart’s younger sister, Grace Muriel Earhart Morrissey. It is the one remaining Lockheed Electra 10-E, which Earhart piloted on her final voyage. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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The sparkling new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum at Atchison’s airport doesn’t just pay tribute to its namesake’s life and career.

It represents a sequence of events so unlikely and fortuitous that you couldn’t have invented them. From the sole surviving Lockheed Electra 10-E plane — the same kind that went missing in Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe — to the bipartisan efforts to fund its creation, the museum couldn’t be anywhere else, or about anyone else.

And don’t get the wrong idea. This museum doesn’t focus on the enigma of Earhart’s disappearance nearly 86 years ago.

“Yes, she was lost,” says Karen Seaberg, founder and president of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation. “Does the mystery keep her alive? Yes. But she was so much more than that. She was a special person.”

Not every town can boast a pioneering aviator who soared across oceans and continents, after all.

The museum celebrates its grand opening at noon Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the front lawn. Doors open to exhibits from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Other events have been planned for the weekend at the newly constructed building, located at the Atchison airport. Visit the museum’s website to learn more and plan a visit yourself.

The entrance of the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum
The Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum can be found at the Amelia Earhart Memorial Airport in Atchison. The statue of Earhart is a “twin” of the statue one unveiled last year at National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. (Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum)

A model of Amelia Earhart's homemade roller coaster
Amelia Earhart and her sister, Muriel, were turned away from a roller coaster at the 1904 World’s Fair because of their gender. They then built one of their own at home, which can be seen in recreated form at the museum. An interactive model of a modern coaster stands nearby. (Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum)


Inside the hangar

Wirestone as fashion designer
An interactive exhibit at the museum allowed opinion editor Clay Wirestone to see himself as a fashion designer. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The plane, named “Muriel” for Earhart’s younger sister, serves as centerpiece for the museum. Fourteen STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-based exhibits surround the plane, offering both historical takes and current-day applications.

Seaberg gave me an enthusiastic tour the museum Monday, as staffers worked to tie up loose ends before the museum’s opening.

The exhibits include an interactive roller coaster model, inspired by a harrowing episode from the aspiring daredevil’s youth, detailed looks at the inside and outside of aircraft, profiles about influences on Earhart’s life and career, and an interactive dress up display showing how various careers have changed between the 1930s and today.

My virtual appearance as a fashion designer had to be seen to be believed.

That only begins to give a taste of the art deco-inspired museum — like an excellent meal, it offers a range of flavors and textures, with layers of subtlety that can go unnoticed if you’re not paying close attention.

Seaberg credits Kansas-based Dimensional Innovations — a Kansas-based firm — with the continually surprising and engaging design. I marveled as we climbed a flight of stairs to a mezzanine level dubbed “Above the clouds.” Visitors try their hands at aerial navigation (the carpet is covered with images of clouds and Howland Island, where Earhart planned to land in 1937), while looking up to a circular expanse of glowing stars for assistance.

That holds particular meaning for Seaberg, whose late husband Ladd not only brought the Muriel to Atchison but was an amateur astronomer.

“We didn’t get to do what you just did,” she told me after the tour. “My husband would be over the moon. We never envisioned it would be this way.”

Visitors to the “Above the clouds” section of the museum can light up various constellations to see how they helped Earhart and her navigator cross the night sky. (Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum)

The new building doesn’t just contain the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum. Toward the back, it also makes space for a sparking new terminal space for the Atchison airport. Airport visitors can peek through interior windows to see the Lockheed Electra 10-E. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)


Accomplishing the impossible

Making the hangar-museum a reality took more than dreaming, of course. It took money.

Corporate and government sponsors included Boeing, Bombardier, FedEx, Garmin, Lockheed Martin and NASA. Seaberg credits both former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (a Republican) and current Gov. Laura Kelly (a Democrat) for roundup up support as well.

While bipartisanship might be scarce in Topeka, at least it still flourishes when paying tribute to a legendary Kansan. A statue of Earhart, incidentally, watches legislators at the Statehouse. Perhaps we should all be grateful it can’t reach out and slap particularly noxious politicians.

“The new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum will celebrate a woman who showed us what it means to ‘reach for the stars,’ ” Kelly said in a news release from the museum. “I’m so glad there will be a place dedicated to showcasing how a fearless Kansan blazed her own trail to become one of the most admired women in the world — inspiring all, especially young girls, for generations to come.”

Nearly nine decades removed from her life, we can afford to see Earhart as a historical inspiration.

And she played an active role in politics of her time, taking a spontaneous flight with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, designing a line of women’s clothing that reflected her individual fashion sense, and sending a letter to her husband-to-be before their wedding demanding her right to individual independence.

Indeed, we revere Earhart today because of her daring crossing of gender barriers and willingness to achieve her ambitions. I wonder what our culture would make of a figure like her today. A Google search of public reaction to outspoken and famous women might offer unfortunate clues.

That bravery — rather than a disappearance that has fueled countless late-night cable shows — marks the Atchison museum. You can’t walk away without feeling inspired. At least, that’s how I felt.

“People will go out of here and want to do things, know that they can, and that the sky’s the limit,” Seaberg said.

Earhart walks in front of airplane
Amelia Earhart strides in front of her Lockheed Electra 10-E airplane in this image from the 1930s. (Purdue University Libraries)

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.