By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Amelia Earhart speaks. She smiles, looks up, and begins to talk about her life experiences.
Wait – didn’t Amelia Earhart disappear in the South Pacific 80 years ago?
Yes, but she is alive again – at least virtually – in an incredible museum that will open in her hometown of Atchison in spring, 2023.
Joe Brentano is director of the new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum. Makinzie Burghart is director of development. Burghart grew up in Atchison as did Amelia Earhart 120 years earlier.
Earhart and her younger sister, Muriel, spent many of their early years at their grandparent’s home in Atchison. In 1908, she saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair, but it didn’t excite her at the time.
Years later, she and a friend were at a flying exposition when a stunt pilot dived at them. “I believe that little red airplane spoke to me as it swished by,” Earhart later wrote.
After attending another air show, she was hooked on flying. She would go on to become the first president of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s aviation organization; the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; first woman to fly solo coast-to-coast; and the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the mainland.
She received many honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, before disappearing on an ill-fated attempt to fly around the globe.
Atchison celebrates the Amelia Earhart history through tours of her childhood home and an annual Amelia Earhart festival. But in 2016, a unique opportunity arose. There was an opportunity to purchase a Lockheed Electra 10-E – the same model as Amelia Earhart flew on her last flight, and the only one left in the world.
Citizens of Atchison, led by Karen and the late Ladd Seaberg, formed the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation and raised the funds to purchase the plane. It was affectionately named Muriel in honor of Amelia’s younger sister. The plane was carefully transported by trailer, 1,206 miles from California to Atchison.
The next step was to create a museum to display the plane. That led to the design and construction of the new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum – in an actual hangar and terminal in a 1930s-style art deco building at the local airport. “This was a $17 million project,” Burghart said.
Outside the museum stands a statue of Earhart, identical to the one that Kansas placed in statuary hall in the nation’s capitol. Inside the entrance, one is greeted by a hologram of Earhart. This electronic CGI image speaks her inspiring words from a century-plus ago, expressing the importance of transcending boundaries.
The centerpiece of the museum is Muriel, the Lockheed Electra 10-E. Muriel is surrounded by 14 incredible, high-tech, state-of-the-art interactive displays. Not only are these educational, they correlate with national and Kansas STEM curriculum content standards.
Exhibits include a digitized version of Earhart’s flight logbook, 3D holograms of aviation advancements through the years, and a display of other key female accomplishments. Guests can climb inside a full-sized replica of Muriel’s cockpit. At another station, guests can experience a virtual reality re-creation of Earhart’s 1932 transatlantic flight.
Another exhibit not only describes Earhart’s other pursuits as a nurse, mechanic, and fashion designer, it allows visitors to select one of these for which the computer will create a personalized on-screen avatar of the visitor in related clothing. Amazing!
What actually happened to Amelia Earhart? Step upstairs and the museum shows a map of where she disappeared, with an exhibit of seven alternative scenarios. Guests can study the arguments for and against each scenario and then vote. (I still suspect she’s living in an apartment with Elvis…)
This remarkable museum will open in mid-April 2023 in the rural community of Atchison, population 10,885 people. Now, that’s rural.