Imperial War Museum

On November 11, 1918 at 11 AM French time, World War I officially ended (at least on paper).  After that, the Allied nations commemorated November 11th as Armistice Day each year.  However, after WWII, Great Britain and its Commonwealth changed the name of the holiday to Remembrance Day, in order to honor those who fought in every British war, not just WWI.  Similarly, after WWII, the United States changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day.

On March 5, 1917, a little over a year before WWI ended, the British government created the National War Museum (soon afterwards renamed the Imperial War Museum) to preserve materials related to the War.  After moving to several different homes, by 1936, it found its permanent location in a former hospital in London, that was originally built in 1814.

During WWII, the Imperial War Museum hid its most precious collections, in order to save them from potential bombs.  This was a wise decision, because the Museum did lose a plane from its collection during a bombing raid.  Once WWII ended, the Imperial War Museum began collecting items from that war as well, and then subsequent British wars, thereafter.

I had the opportunity to visit the Imperial War Museum of London back in 2010.  Soon after my visit, the museum began a large renovation project, in anticipation of 2014, which was the centenary of the start of WWI.  That means that much has probably changed since I was there.  However, if the museum managed to get into my list of top 10 museums that I have ever visited, before the renovations even happened, then it must be even more amazing now.

In line with most of Britain’s government-owned museums, the Imperial War Museum has free admittance.  Unsurprisingly, its primary focus is the two World Wars of the twentieth century.  It has every imaginable type of object related to these wars.  These includes the uniforms of each participating country, many of the weapons and airplanes used, British air raid lights, and much more.  There is also a lot of important material housed in the museum that is not on display.  For example, it has an extensive archive and library full of documents, books, photos, videos, oral histories, etc. related to Britain’s 20th and 21st century wars.  Many of these items are digitized and searchable on the museum’s wonderful website.

This is a Nazi plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, at the Imperial War Museum in London.

New Zealander, Peter Jackson, is not only one of my heroes because he directed the Lord of the Rings films, but also because he helped restore a significant number of WWI film footage held at the Imperial War Museum.  Using much of the museum’s film footage (which he colorized) and oral histories, Jackson created a documentary chronologically detailing the experiences of British soldiers during WWI.  The 2018 documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is entirely comprised of audio and video footage taken from the Imperial War Museum.  Here is a BBC video of Jackson explaining how he and his team restored deteriorating WWI film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cSXfKSRKz4.

A few more things should be noted about the Imperial War Museum.  When I went in 2010, the top floor was entirely dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust.  Additionally, I remember finding it odd that off in one random corner of the museum was the motorcycle that T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) rode and crashed to his death in 1935.  Apparently, it was on loan at the museum from a private owner, so since 2013, is no longer displayed there.  However, a blog post from the Imperial War Museum seems to say that, although the motorcycle that was on display did belong to Lawrence, it was not the actual one he rode when he died.  That confuses me because I remember the sign at the museum saying that it was the one he rode at this death.  Regardless, it is no longer there.

In addition to the museum in London, the Imperial War Museum operates several other related museums throughout Britain.  These are the Churchill War Rooms (which I have seen and will hopefully write about in the future), the HMS Belfast (a WWII warship), the Imperial War Museum Duxford (Europe’s largest air museum), and the Imperial War Museum North (a smaller war museum in northern England).

Sources and Further Reading
BBC. “How Lord of the Rings Director Brought Colour to WWI.” YouTube, November 11, 2018. Video, 4:59. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cSXfKSRKz4 (accessed November 6, 2020).

“The History of IWM.” Imperial War Museum. https://www.iwm.org.uk/corporate/IWM-history (accessed on November 6, 2020).

“The Relevance of Lawrence of Arabia’s Bike.” IWM London is Changing. February 26, 2013. https://imperialwarmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/the-relevance-of-lawrence-of-arabias-bike/ (accessed on November 6, 2020).

They Shall Not Grow Old. Directed by Peter Jackson. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2018.

“World War I Ends.” History Channel. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/world-war-i-ends-2 (accessed on November 6, 2020).

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Although the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was born in the state of Kentucky, Illinois is commonly called the “Land of Lincoln.”  In fact, even the Illinois license plate has this phrase on it, as well as a depiction of Lincoln’s head.  This is because Lincoln lived in Illinois longer than he did in any other state. 

In 2005, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in Illinois’ state capital of Springfield.  Originally, it was the Illinois State Historical Library, which first began collecting materials regarding the history of Illinois in 1889.  Since this library had a large Abraham Lincoln collection, people and the state eventually raised enough funds to transform it into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  However, despite its new name, it continues to collect non-Lincoln materials from Illinois history as well.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt was the first U.S. President to donate his materials to the Federal Government specifically to create a presidential library.  Soon after that, it became mandatory for U.S. Presidents to do so.  Today, the U.S. National Archives runs the presidential libraries of Roosevelt, his predecessor Hoover, and every U.S. president after them.  A handful of earlier U.S. Presidents have their own presidential libraries, but these are all independently run by different groups, not the federal government.  The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is run by the state of Illinois.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum provides visitors with an interactive experience that makes the visit enjoyable to people who do not typically like museums.  For example, it includes a variety of lifelike dioramas from Lincoln’s life displayed throughout the Museum.  There is also a neat hologram movie that visitors can watch about Lincoln.  The Museum begins with Lincoln’s early years, continues through his careers as a clerk and lawyer, and eventually leads into his involvement with Illinois politics.  The second half of the Museum describes Lincoln’s presidential years, involvement in the U.S. Civil War, and eventual assassination.  Among the noteworthy items on display at the Museum are an original copy of the Gettysburg address, the quill pen Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and the bloody gloves Lincoln wore at the time of his assassination.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is a separate building across the street from the Museum.  As previously mentioned, it includes documents about Abraham Lincoln, but also has materials about the history of Illinois, including an oral history collection and useful resources for Illinois genealogists.  Additionally, the climate-controlled library building functions as the archives for the Museum, meaning that it also houses museum objects.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum recently joined the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI).  Since I used to work for another CARLI library member, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending two librarian events at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.  While there, I had a tour of their conservation lab, where they work on repairing documents, books, maps, etc.  The staff demonstrated how to wrap and carefully submerge stiff, rolled documents into water, in order to soften them up enough to eventually unroll them.  The staff also showed us the Museum’s archives, where we saw a few interesting items.  It fascinated me how they treated a jersey worn by a Chicago Blackhawks hockey player during a recent Stanley Cup win with the same amount of caution and precision as they did a handmade Civil War violin from 1863.

This encapsulation machine at the Abraham Lincoln Library’s conservation lab seals fragile documents between two strips of polyester film. The process only seals the edges of the polyester together, unlike lamination, which sticks the polyester onto the entire document. Since lamination uses heat, it causes more long-term damage and cannot be undone, whereas polyester can be removed from an encapsulated document.

If you have enough time in Springfield, you should also visit a few other Abraham Lincoln spots in the area.  The home that Lincoln lived in prior to his presidency is not far from the Museum.  It is owned by the National Park Service, which provides free 20-25 minute tours of the home daily (except during COVID-19, so take a virtual tour).  Also nearby is Lincoln’s large tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  Finally, about thirty minutes away is New Salem.  New Salem is a reconstruction of the small town that Lincoln lived in prior to living in Springfield.  It is now a living history museum, so you can walk inside the reconstructed log buildings while learning more about life in the town from the staff, who are dressed in nineteenth-century garb.  Interestingly, New Salem was reconstructed in the 1930s and early 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a governmental program that provided unemployed young men with jobs during the Great Depression.

Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield

Sources and Further Reading
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. https://www2.illinois.gov/alplm/Pages/default.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. http://lincolnlibraryandmuseum.com/index.htm (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.” Visit Springfield Illinois. https://www.visitspringfieldillinois.com/LocationDetails/?id=Abraham-Lincoln-Presidential-Museum (accessed October 3, 2020).

“History.” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. https://www2.illinois.gov/alplm/library/aboutus/Pages/History.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/liho/index.htm (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home National Historic Site, National Park Service.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/u/0/partner/lincoln-home-national-historic-site (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Tomb.” Visit Springfield Illinois. https://www.visitspringfieldillinois.com/LocationDetails/?id=Lincoln-Tomb (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln’s New Salem.” Historic Preservation Division. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/experience/sites/central/pages/new-salem.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

Perlman, Seth. “New Museum Brings All Sides of Abraham Lincoln to Life.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 17, 2005. https://www.post-gazette.com/life/travel/2005/04/18/New-museum-brings-all-sides-of-Abraham-Lincoln-to-life/stories/200504180116 (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Presidential Library History.” National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/about/history.html (accessed October 3, 2020).“Virtual Tour.” Lincoln’s New Salem. https://www.lincolnsnewsalem.com/ (accessed October 3, 2020).

The Israel Museum

The most famous museum in Israel is the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Founded in 1965, it was primarily built to display the numerous archaeological finds from throughout the country.  It is located across the street from the Knesset, Israel’s government building, and houses approximately 500,000 items.

Perhaps the most popular display at the Israel Museum is the Shrine of the Book, which is a smaller building on the Museum complex that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.  More information about the Dead Sea Scrolls can be found in my Previous Post.  These First Century A.D. era scrolls are the oldest Biblical texts ever found (not including a tiny Biblical inscription found at Ketef Hinnom).

Right outside the Shrine of the Book building, visitors can see a huge model depicting Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, the time that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written.  The model was originally built for the Holy Land Hotel in 1966, a year before Israel took of control of the Temple Mount area.  People, including my dad, would visit the Holy Land Hotel just to see the model.  However, the model was disassembled into 100 parts and moved to the Israel Museum in 2006.

This is the model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Israel Museum’s archaeology wing is probably its second largest attraction, after the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It not only houses archaeology found in Israel, but also archaeology from other areas of the world, especially the Middle East.  One famous item displayed there is the Ketef Hinnom inscription, which I mentioned above as being the oldest Biblical text ever discovered.  In 1979, Dr. Gabriel Barkay found two silver scrolls that contain the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:23-27.  He found them in a burial cave in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley.  (Fun Fact: the word Gehenna is an anglicanized version of Gei-Hinnom גֵי־הִנֹּם‎, which means “Valley of Hinnom.”  Because it was used as a dump and a place where evil kings performed child sacrifices in ancient times, the word came to be associated with Hell.)  Today, you can visit the burial caves where the Ketef Hinnom inscription was found by going into the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and asking if you could see their archaeolgical garden.

These are the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions, which are the oldest Biblical texts ever discovered.

In addition to archaeology, the Israel Museum has also become Israel’s main art museum.  However, I am less knowledgable and interested in art, so do not know what famous pieces they have there.  While at the museum, I did not have enough time so sped through the art wing.

One other wing at the museum is called the Jack, Joseph, & Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art & Life.  This wing houses Judaica from throughout the centuries and throughout the world.  My favorite part of this wing is called “The Synagogue Route.”  This exhibit is a reconstruction of four synagogues, using pieces from the originals.  It includes synagogues from 18th century Italy, 16th century India, 18th century Germany, and 18th century Suriname.  From what I remember, as you walk into each of the gorgeously recreated synagogues, you hear Jewish music playing from that synagogue’s country and time period.

In the archaeology wing, you can see a nail in the heel of a Jewish man who was crucified by the Romans. Physical evidence of Roman crucifixions are rare finds.

Google Arts & Culture created a Virtual View of the Israel Museum, in case you are interested.

Sources and Further Reading

Friedman, Matti. “In a Stone Box, the Only Trace of Crucifixion.” The Times of Israel. March 26, 2012. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-a-stone-box-a-rare-trace-of-crucifixion/ (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Israel Museum.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/the-israel-museum-jerusalem (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” The Israel Museum. https://www.imj.org.il/en/wings/shrine-book/model-jerusalem-second-temple-period (accessed September 26, 2020).

“Welcome to Museum.” The Israel Museum. https://www.imj.org.il/en/content/welcome-museum (accessed September 26, 2020).

9/11 Memorial and Museum

Most people visit museums to learn new information.  However, memorial museums often add an emotional element to the visit.  The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is no exception.  After visiting, the experience will probably stay in your mind for at least the rest of the day.

When a country experiences a disaster, most people remember the day vividly.  For example, most people living in the United States in 1963 can remember what they were doing on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  A more recent example is September 11, 2001, when the United States experienced the largest terrorist attack on its soil.  On that day, four planes were hijacked by terrorists, with one (United Airlines Flight 93) crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, one crashing into the Pentagon building in Washington D.C., and two crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The highest casualties of the 9/11 attacks occurred in New York City, since both of the skyscrapers tumbled to the ground.  When the World Trade Center was completed in 1973, the towers ranked as the second and third tallest skyscrapers in the world, after the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in Chicago.  Prior to the attacks in 2001, they were the second and third tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere. 

On 9/11, I remember the Chicago news saying that the Aon Center (originally, the Standard Oil Building) in Chicago was built using the same construction style as the World Center.

Because the damage was so extensive, cleaning the debris from the New York attacks almost took a year.  Afterwards, people debated what to do with the eerie space, eventually deciding to make most of it a memorial/museum, which was completed in 2014.  Additionally, a new skyscraper, known as the One World Trade Center, was built in the damaged vicinity.  It is currently the tallest building in the United States and Western Hemisphere.

The One World Trade Center is the building on the left.

The bases of the World Trade Center towers now act as memorial fountains.  Walking around the fountains helps bring perspective on how wide the towers were.  The memorial fountains include the names of those killed in all of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as those killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  You can search for the location of the victims’ names on the memorial at the museum’s website: https://names.911memorial.org/#lang=en_US

The actual museum is located underground, in the foundations of the twin towers.  As soon as I entered the building, I felt uneasy.  The entire museum has a creepy vibe.  It does not help that you can see a remaining staircase going up to nothing, or pieces of distorted metal frames on display.

The museum provides a chronological experience of what happened on 9/11, using signs, video footage, and objects to help tell the story.  This not only includes the stories of the victims, but also of the first responders who came to help.  One disconcerting room is dedicated to the Flight 93 hijacking that landed in Pennsylvania.  In it, you can listen to the phone calls people made before the plane crashed.

Because 9/11 is still a recent memory, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum struggled with what should and should not be on display.  An especially contentious issue was whether the 19 hijackers’ photos should be displayed in the museum or not.  Ultimately, their photographs are on display at the end of the exhibit, as is security camera video footage of some of them successfully going through airport security checkpoints.

Although it might dampen your mood, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is undoubtedly worth the visit.  The exhibits are top notch and the content extremely important.  Due to COVID-19, the number of visitors cannot exceed 25% capacity (When I visited in 2016, the museum was packed.).  Because of this, the museum is currently offering live virtual tours on Sundays for $25: https://www.911memorial.org/visit/virtual-tours.

Sources and Further Reading

Cohen, Patricia. “At Museum on 9/11, Talking through an Identity Crisis. The New York Times. June 2, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/arts/design/sept-11-memorial-museums-fraught-task-to-tell-the-truth.html (accessed September 10, 2020).

“Memorial Guide.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum. https://names.911memorial.org/#lang=en_US (accessed September 10, 2020).

“Virtual Memorial Tour.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum. https://www.911memorial.org/visit/virtual-tours (accessed September 10, 2020).

Civil War Museum of Kenosha, WI

The last time I visited a museum, before COVID-19 caused the United States to shut down, was on March 1, 2020.  On that day, I visited the Civil War Museum of Kenosha, WI.  Located a little over an hour away from Chicago, Kenosha has certainly been receiving a lot of national attention this week due to police/racial tension.  I am not sure if that is the reason why the Civil War Museum’s website is currently not working, but that is why I wanted to write some positive news about Kenosha.

Kenosha Civil War Museum_3-1-2020

The key states in the American Civil War were the eastern ones since that is where most Americans lived during the mid-nineteenth century.  However, the American Midwest also played a role in the War, even though no major battles occurred there.  Built in 2008, Kenosha’s Civil War Museum focuses on the experiences of the seven upper Midwestern states that sent their men to the battlefield: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

A highlight at the museum is a 10-minute 360-degree movie called “Seeing the Elephant,” referencing a phrase soldiers used for seeing a battle.  Visitors watch the film standing up on a heightened platform in the middle of the room.  Meanwhile, the film uses the entire top perimeter of the room as a screen, so that you need to keep turning around to see everything.  The film provides a brief overview of a battle from the perspective of three Midwesterners.  The 360-degree aspect of the film helps make you feel as if you were there.

The museum’s main exhibit provides visitors with a chronological view of the American Civil War, emphasizing the experiences of soldiers and other participants from the Midwest.  That means that most of the artifacts at the museum have a Midwestern connection, as do most of the stories told on the signs.  The design of the exhibits includes a recreation of a town, and a recreation of a battle camp, which help make the museum feel more interactive.

Kenosha Civil War Museum_Military Lifet_3-1-2020

Upstairs, the Civil War Museum has a library filled with books about the American Civil War, with a special emphasis on the American Midwest.  The library also includes a play area for children, where they can dress up in different Civil War-era clothing.  Due to COVID-19, I wonder when that activity will resume.  Downstairs, across from the main exhibit, is a darkened room that serves as a war memorial to those who perished in every U.S. war.  The room’s ceiling is filled with lights that look like stars, and the walls each memorialize a different U.S. war.  There is still room for more wars to be added onto the walls.

Kenosha Civil War Museum_Library_3-1-2020

Since Kenosha is located on Lake Michigan, you might be tempted to walk around the area outside the museum, which includes two lighthouses and a path along the Lake.  Additionally, if you drive about five minutes away, you can visit the oldest of the Kenosha Public Library buildings, which has a Winged Victory Civil War memorial in front of it.  Both the library and the memorial were built in 1900.  The Gilbert M. Simmons Memorial Library was actually built by Daniel Burnham, the man responsible for planning Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Kenosha Civil War Winged Victory Memorial_Library Park_10-5-2019

Approximately, 750,000 men from the American Midwest served in the U.S. Civil War for the Northern (Yankee) cause.  Since the Midwest is often overlooked when studying the American Civil War, it is nice that Kenosha tried to make sure that they were not forgotten.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Civil War Museum.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/CWMKenosha/ (accessed August 28, 2020).

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

One of the most iconic symbols of the United States is the Statue of Liberty in New York City.  Completed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel (who, soon afterwards, built Paris’ Eiffel Tower) in 1886, France gave this statue to the United States as a gift.  Her fame grew after Ellis Island opened in 1892, as a federal immigration station that processed new immigrants to the United States.  Since Ellis Island is next to the Statue of Liberty, her beacon welcomed approximately 12 million immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island, upon reaching their new home.

Ellis Island functioned as an immigration station from 1892 until its closure in 1954.  Upon arrival, officials processed who would be entering the United States.  Although other ports accepted new immigrants to the United States, Ellis Island accepted the most.  According to the History Channel’s article about Ellis Island, approximately 40% of today’s U.S. population can trace an ancestor to Ellis Island.  Throughout its time in operation, the United States passed a variety of immigration laws preventing different groups from entering the country, including polygamists, criminals, and the mentally ill.  That meant that officials had to check each person, to see if they qualified to enter the country.  This inspection included a medical checkup.  Immigration officials usually inspected the would-be immigrants while they were still on the boat, before their arrival to New York.  However, those with the lowest-class tickets had to wait on Ellis Island itself to learn about their fate.

Today, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are owned by the National Park Service.  Both sites are free, however, visitors must purchase tickets through Statue Cruises to get to the two islands.  Ferries run every twenty minutes from Battery Park on Manhattan Island.  The ferry from Battery Park first goes to Liberty Island, where visitors can get off and see the Statue of Liberty.  Once they are ready, they can then take a ferry to the next stop, which is Ellis Island.  Audio tours are included with your ferry ticket, so if you are like me and want to listen to all of it, you could be touring the islands for hours!

In addition to the basic tour options, you can also purchase tickets through Statue Cruises to go up to the Statue of Liberty’s crown.  However, because only a few people can go up at a time, you must purchase these tickets far in advance. In the past, people used to also be able to go up onto the Statue’s torch, but not anymore.  I did not get to climb up to the crown, but I did get a ticket that allowed me to go inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, which has a museum describing the history of the Statue.  As of 2019, visitors can now also visit the new Statue of Liberty Museum, located near the Statue of Liberty.  Since I visited the Statue of Liberty before 2019, I sadly did not get to visit it

The Statue of Liberty’s original torch was in poor condition, so it was replaced in 1984. Above, is the torch in the Statue of Liberty’s Pedestal, but it has since been moved to the new Statue of Liberty Museum.

Prior to Ellis Island, many immigrants entered New York through Castle Garden.  Originally a fort called Castle Clinton that was built during the War of 1812, it eventually became an entertainment center.  Then, from 1855-1890, it transformed into an immigration center that processed approximately 8 million immigrants.  After Ellis Island opened, Castle Garden became an aquarium.  Today, you can visit Castle Clinton (it is known by its original name now) while waiting for your Statue of Liberty ferry, however, there is not a lot to see there.

When the government decided to make Ellis Island an immigration center, they enlarged the island using landfill soil (including soil taken out while building New York’s new subway system).  If you choose to use the audio tour on Ellis Island, you will find yourself walking throughout the entire main building there.  This includes the impressive main hall, with the high, tiled ceiling.  Along the way, you will also hear some stories of different immigrants’ experiences.  If you decide to skip the audio tour, you can still read a variety of signs about the facility placed throughout the building.  If you are interested in taking a virtual tour of Ellis Island in the meantime, a link to it is available here. The virtual tour allows you to view the Island in either summer or winter. https://www.nps.gov/hdp/exhibits/ellis/Ellis_Index.html?html5=prefer

One common myth about Ellis Island is that immigration officials often changed the names of new immigrants to make them more Americanized.  However, Ellis Island attempts to dispel this myth.  According to signage there, the reality was that the immigrants themselves changed their own names prior to arriving at Ellis Island.  The immigration officials only checked to make sure that the immigrants were qualified to enter the country.  Changing names was not their job.  This myth has even persisted in my own family lore.  I apparently had a relative whose last name was Asch (supposedly a distant relative of the Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch).  Since the name “Asch” sounded too much like “Ass,” he (probably not immigration officials) changed his name to Flax.

I should also mention that there are many other buildings surrounding the main building on Ellis Island, such as a kitchen, measles ward, laundry room, etc.  However, since these buildings are expensive to maintain, most are in poor condition.  For those who are interested, Statue Cruises does sell tickets for hard hat tours of some of these buildings.  As the name implies, you must wear a hard hat during the tour, because of the decrepit condition of the buildings.

Since so many Americans came to the United States through Ellis Island, Ellis Island hosts an awesome database, where you can search all of their passenger records for free.  All you have to do is create an account: https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger.  Additionally, on the third floor of the main Ellis Island building, there is the Bob Hope Memorial Research Library (Actor and comedian, Bob Hope, came to the U.S. from England at the age of four, in 1908.), where people can perform extensive research if they like.  Included at the library are the oral histories of approximately 2,000 immigrants.

Sources and Further Reading

Andrews, Evan. ”9 Things You May Not Know about Ellis Island.” History Channel. February 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-ellis-island (accessed July 19, 2020).

Ault, Alicia. “Did Ellis Island Officials Change the Names of Immigrants?” Smithsonian Magazine. December 28, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really-change-names-immigrants-180961544/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Castle Clinton: History & Culture.” National Park Service. May 16, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/cacl/learn/historyculture/index.htm (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” History Channel. April 8, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/ellis-island#:~:text=Located%20at%20the%20mouth%20of,their%20ancestors%20to%20Ellis%20Island. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. https://www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/overview-history/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island: Virtual Tour.” National Park Service. April 22, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/elis/learn/photosmultimedia/virtual-tour.htm (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Passenger Search.” The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue Cruises Ticket Options.” Statue Cruises. https://www.statuecruises.com/statue-liberty-and-ellis-island-tickets/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue of Liberty.” History Channel. July 1, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/landmarks/statue-of-liberty (accessed July 19, 2020).

Ronald Reagan’s Birthplace and Boyhood Home

Although Illinois is known as the “Land of Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois.  The motto “Land of Lincoln” came from the fact that Lincoln lived in Illinois for a significant portion of his life, and also became its senator.  Barack Obama also served as senator of Illinois.  However, Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. president actually born in Illinois.

Ronald Reagan was born in an apartment in rural Tampico, Illinois, which is about 2 hours west of Chicago.  It is maintained by the Tampico Historical Society, which provides tours for visitors.  On your tour, you not only see the apartment unit owned by Reagan’s parents, but also have a chance to see the recreated bank that would have been located below it when Reagan was a boy.  Reagan was born in Tampico on February 6, 1911, but did not live in his birthplace for long.  His father was an alcoholic, so the family’s income was unsteady, meaning that they moved around often. 

Ronald Reagan’s Birthplace is above the First National Bank, located at 111 S. Main St. Tampico, IL 61283.

Reagan’s family moved to Dixon, Illinois in 1920.  Dixon is about 30 minutes northeast of Tampico (about 1 hour and 40 minutes west of Chicago).  Even in Dixon, Reagan’s family did not stay in one home for long.  However, one of the homes that he lived in has become a historic site that provides tours for visitors.  Reagan lived there with his parents and older brother from 1920 to 1924.  After that, the family moved around to other parts of Dixon. 

The Reagan Boyhood Home became a historic site, because in 1980, when Reagan was running for president, the local mailman informed the city of Dixon that the home was for sale, and might be a profitable investment if Reagan won the presidency.  He was ultimately correct.

Ronald Reagan’s Boyhood Home at 816 S. Hennepin Ave. Dixon, IL 61021

For both of Reagan’s tours, you learn a lot about Reagan’s life, and how his job as a radio sportscaster eventually led to his career as a Hollywood actor.  Although never becoming a well-renowned actor, his first wife (married 1940-49), Jane Wyman, was an Academy Award winner for the 1948 film Johnny Belinda.  Reagan eventually entered the political arena, and served as a Republican President of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

Admission to the Reagan Boyhood Home has a fee, however, admission to his Birthplace site is free.  My favorite part about the Boyhood Home was that when Reagan visited it after it became a museum, he pulled out a loose brick that was right outside the fireplace hearth, to show that he used to hide his money from his brother under there.  My tour guide then proceeded to pull up the loose brick.  As for the Birthplace site, my favorite part was when the tour guide explained that when Reagan visited there after his presidency, he went through the window of his apartment into the apartment next door, to recreate how his mother used to hand him over to his neighbor through the window when she needed someone to babysit him.  After telling me this story, my tour guide then permitted me to go through the window and recreate this incident.

The Dixon Public Library even has a plaque about Reagan.

If you decide to visit Reagan’s Boyhood Home, try to also stop by his Birthplace site, since they are only 30 minutes apart from each other.  Be sure to check the visitor hours for both locations, especially since they are not open during the colder months.  If you drive to Dixon and Tampico from Chicago using Interstate 88, you may notice signs that say “Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway,” in honor of Reagan. 

P.S. The John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois is only 10 minutes away from Reagan’s Boyhood Home, so may also be worth visiting if you are in the area.  Admission is free.  I wrote about that site here: https://arkeh.travel.blog/2019/08/11/john-deere-company/

Sources and Further Reading

McClelland, Edward. “How Reagan’s Childhood Home Gave Up on Reaganism.” Politico. November 23. 2019. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2019/11/23/ronald-reagan-childhood-home-072935 (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Ronald Reagan Birthplace.” Tampico Historical Society. https://www.tampicohistoricalsociety.com/R_Reagan_Birthplace_Museum.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home. https://reaganhome.org/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago

Chicago ranks among the top three cities with the largest Ukrainian population in the United States.  The first Ukrainian immigrants came to Chicago during a wave in the late nineteenth century, but three more waves of immigration followed throughout the twentieth century.  Many Ukrainians settled in a western area of Chicago, which is now known as Ukrainian Village.  Although several Ukrainian churches are still there, most Ukrainians are now dispersed throughout Chicago and its suburbs, and are no longer concentrated within a single neighborhood.

Ukrainian Village has two Ukrainian museums.  The first is the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, which was founded in 1971.  I have never visited it.  The second is called the Ukrainian National Museum and was founded in 1952.  I have visited the latter one.  It is located across the street from the gorgeous Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, and primarily displays Ukrainian arts and crafts, in addition to some snippets of Ukrainian history.

The museum’s arts and crafts exhibits include a variety of Ukrainian clothing, dishes, etc.  They also contain a variety of beautiful pysanky.  Pysanky are specially decorated Easter eggs.  First, the yolk is removed from the egg through a tiny hole, and then the remaining eggshell is intricately decorated with colorful dyes.

A significant portion of the museum discusses the Ukrainian famine or genocide of 1932-1933, known as the Holdomor.  During that time, Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.  In accordance with his Communist ideology, Stalin attempted to bring all of Ukraine’s farmland under governmental control.  Many famers resisted giving up their land, and were therefore sent to prison camps in Siberia.  Because the farmers did not reach their required governmental quota of grain, Stalin punished the people by removing all of their remaining produce.  Ultimately, between 4 to 10 million Ukrainians died as a result of the man-made famine.  During this time, Stalin also attempted to discourage the use of the Ukrainian language, and destroy Ukrainian nationalism. 

The museum describes the Holdomor using newspaper clippings, photos, and signs.  Additionally, on the day when I visited the museum, a historian/staff member walked around the museum answering questions that visitors may have had regarding the exhibits.  She recommended that we watch the 2017 film Bitter Harvest, which dramatically portrays the Holdomor.  It did a decent job of describing what happened.  As of 2020, less than 40 countries acknowledge that the Holdomor was a genocide, while Russia continues to deny that the deaths were intentional.

The Ukrainian National Museum typically hosts different events throughout the year (when there are no pandemics).  It also maintains a library and archives, which are available to researchers upon appointment.

Sources and Further Reading

Bitter Harvest. Directed by George Mendeluk. Los Angeles, CA: Roadside Attractions, 2017.

“Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.” Ukrainian National Museum. https://ukrainiannationalmuseum.org/chicagos-ukrainian-village/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

Hrycack, Alexandra. “Ukrainians.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1279.html (accessed July 19, 2020).

Kiger, Patrick J. “How Joseph Stalin Starved Millions in the Ukrainian Famine.” History Channel. April 16, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/ukrainian-famine-stalin (accessed July 19, 2020).

Chinese American Museum of Chicago

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago just reopened its doors to the public on July 1, 2020, after being closed since March, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  A video of the reopening is available on a Chinese website: http://video.sinovision.net/?id=57080&cid=124&fbclid=IwAR1JFmQDCF61-jNvMpIFVFGaAakkRuMxtn4yZFGysYTXGUQN_BPZhh8fWOI

Many people from China began arriving to the United States during the California Gold Rush of 1849.  Afterwards, many of these Chinese immigrants found jobs building the transcontinental railroad, which connected the Eastern and Western coasts of the United States via railroad.  Once the railroad was completed in 1869, a large number of these immigrants then sought work elsewhere.  It is around this time that Chinese immigrants began moving to Chicago, to find better jobs and less discrimination.

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago was founded in 2005 to document Chicago’s Chinese history.  The first floor of the former warehouse displays the Museum’s temporary exhibits.  When I visited, the temporary exhibit was called “The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad – The Railroad Helped Build America.”  This wonderful exhibit showed how much we owe to the hard work of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the United States’ transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.  Unfortunately, the Chinese workers received inferior treatment in comparison to other groups who worked on the transcontinental railroad.  For example, they received lower wages than others and were often the ones made to do the dangerous work of dynamiting the mountains, to make space for the railroad.

The second floor of the Museum is the permanent exhibit that displays the history of Chicago’s Chinese history.  My visit there began with a 15-minute video that a staff member put on for me to watch.  The video is called “My Chinatown: Stories from Within,” and was created in collaboration with the Chicago History Museum.  It not only uses a screen, but also uses props next to the screen as part of the presentation.

After watching the video, I made my way through the rest of the permanent exhibit.  It includes a beautiful diorama from Chicago’s former Wentworth Avenue Ling Long Museum, which closed in the 1980s.  The Ling Long Museum was built during the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress in 1933-34, and displayed dioramas of famous Chinese stories.  The diorama at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago is beautiful and intricate.  Unfortunately, it is the sole surviving diorama from the Ling Long Museum.  The remaining dioramas burned down when the Chinese American Museum of Chicago experienced a devastating fire in 2008.

Through objects, photographs, and signs, the Chinese American Museum of Chicago documents Chicago’s Chinese history from the nineteenth century up until the present day.  This includes mention of the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States.  That means that Chinese immigration to Chicago went on hold for several decades.  However, after World War II, the restrictions were lifted.  Many Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States during China’s political upheaval in the 1950s.  I found it interesting that the last section of the Museum’s exhibit mentions how many of the more recent Chinese immigrants to the United States were Chinese children adopted by U.S. families.

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago is a great place to learn the history of Chicago’s Chinese community.  It is located in Chicago’s Chinatown, in the South Side of Chicago.  While in Chinatown, you can also grab a meal at one of the numerous Chinese restaurants there, and look at some of the Chinese-inspired architecture in the neighborhood.

Sources and Further Reading

“Objects from the Former Ling Long Museum, 1930s.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. April 26, 2018. https://ccamuseum.org/2018/04/26/objects-from-the-former-ling-long-museum-1930s/  (accessed June 27, 2020).

Fuchs, Chris. “150 Years Ago, Chinese Railroad Workers Staged the Era’s Largest Labor Strike.” NBC News. June 31, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/150-years-ago-chinese-railroad-workers-staged-era-s-largest-n774901#:~:text=Chinese%20laborers%20made%20up%20a,hammered%20in%20at%20Promontory%2C%20Utah. (accessed June 27, 2020).

“History and Mission.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. https://ccamuseum.org/history-and-mission/ (accessed June 27, 2020).

Isaacs, Deanna. The Museum that Works. Chicago Reader. October 23, 2008. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-museum-that-works/Content?oid=1105917 (accessed June 27, 2020).

Steffes, Tracy. “Chinese.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2014. http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/285.html (accessed June 27, 2020).

Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian is a network of 20 museums run by the U.S. government.  Perhaps the most popular of them is the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.  Completed in 1964, and originally called the National Museum of History and Technology, the museum, unsurprisingly, contains the largest collection of United States history in the world.

The National Museum of American History is huge, so I have not seen all of its exhibits.  However, I have seen one of its most famous exhibits: The Star-Spangled Banner.  As its name implies, it displays the flag that inspired an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the poem that became the U.S. national anthem.  Key was temporarily held hostage on a British boat during the War of 1812, and watched as the British bombed Baltimore in September of 1814.  After an anxious night, Key saw Fort McHenry raise its 15-starred American flag the next day, showing him that the British had lost the battle.  Out of joy, Key penned and eventually published his poem, which he ironically suggested be sung to a British tune.  Congress did not officially declare “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem until 1931.  The Star-Spangled Banner exhibit is located in a dimmed room, in order to protect the huge flag from light damage.

Another awesome exhibit at the National Museum of American History is called “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”  This exhibit documents all of the wars the United States has fought in, using artifacts, photographs, signs, and videos.  Across from this exhibit is the Gunboat Philadelphia, which was used in America’s Revolutionary War in 1776, under the command of Benedict Arnold, who later became notorious as a traitor.  The ship sunk in battle, but was later salvaged in 1935.

The U.S.S. Philadelphia is the oldest military vessel in the U.S. that still exists.

Other exhibits at the National Museum of American History include a display of the dresses worn by many of America’s First Ladies (the U.S. Presidents’ wives).  It is fun to see how women’s fashions have changed over the years.  The museum also displays part of the original counter from the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the first sit-in occurred.  That is when four African American men went into a Woolworth’s store to eat lunch, in 1960, and stayed in their seats, even though the store’s policy was to only serve white people.  Their action started a chain-reaction, causing many people to take part in sit-ins throughout the South.  Other exhibits included at the museum are ones on technology, U.S. currency, transportation, and a 200-year-old house from Massachusetts.  Additionally, miscellaneous items from the museum’s collection can be found throughout the building. 

U.S. World War II propaganda posters are displayed in “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibit.

The Museum is currently working on renovating a fun exhibit called “National Treasures of Popular Culture,” which includes items from athletes, actors, musicians, etc.  The most famous of these items is still currently on display, even though the rest of this exhibit is closed.  That is the Ruby Slippers, worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.

Apparently, several pairs of Ruby Slippers were made for the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, but this pair at the Smithsonian wasn’t made for each other.

As of July 3, 2020, the National Museum of American History is still closed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, in general, it is free to the public, as are the rest of the Smithsonian Museums.

The exhibits in the National Museum of American History’s lobby rotate. When I was there last, it featured the Batmobile from the 1989 Batman film.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Gunboat Philadelphia.” National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/press/fact-sheets/gunboat-philadelphia (accessed July 3, 2020).

“Mission and History.” National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/museum/mission-history (accessed July 3, 2020).

“The Star-Spangled Banner.” Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/flag-day/banner-facts#:~:text=The%20Star%2DSpangled%20Banner%20has,(1792)%20joining%20the%20Union. (accessed July 3, 2020).