Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History

What do Shemp, Moe, and Curly Howard from the Three Stooges; the violinist, Jascha Heifetz; the American, singers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen; and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, all have in common?  The answer is that all of these men have Litvak, or Lithuanian Jewish, decent.

According to the World Jewish Congress, today (in 2021), approximately 2,700 to 6,500 Jews live in Lithuania.  However, as the map from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center indicates in the photo below, prior to World War II, Lithuania once had approximately 168,000 Jews.  By the end of WWII, in 1945, approximately 143,000 Jewish people had been murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, making the death rate over 90%.  Many of those deaths occurred in and around Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius (also known as Vilna), since 45% of that city’s population used to be Jewish. In fact, Vilnius used to be called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”  Sadly, Lithuania had a higher percentage of local people who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust than did most of the other Nazi-controlled countries during WWII.

This is a section of a map at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center entitled, “Destruction of the Jewish Communities during the Holocaust.”

After WWII, Lithuania fell into the hands of the Soviet Union, making it closed off to the rest of the world.  However, Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union.  In 1989, a year before gaining its independence, Lithuania opened a museum in Vilnius dedicated to preserving Lithuania’s Jewish history.  Strangely, I am having trouble finding out what the original name of the museum was, but in 1997, it became the Vilna Gaon State Museum.  That is because 1997 marked the 200-year anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon.  The Vilna Gaon was, perhaps, Lithuania’s most famous Jewish resident.  He was an eighteenth-century Jewish scholar with a photographic memory.  In 2020, the Vilna Gaon State Museum again renamed itself.  Now, it is called the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.

This is the Tolerance Center building of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.

I had the wonderful privilege of visiting the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History’s main building, called the Tolerance Center, in 2017.  This large building has historically belonged to the Jewish community for over a century, and was even a Jewish theater at one point.

In my opinion, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History’s highlight is a display of objects that still exist from the Great Synagogue of Vilna.  Built in the 1630s, the Great Synagogue was lamentably demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s.  Although the Soviets built a school over it, a team of archaeologists recently began excavating the surrounding area in 2016.  In November of 2020, I was able to watch a pre-screening of the first half of a new documentary called The Secrets of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which is about the excavations.  The full documentary is scheduled for release this spring (of 2021). From the documentary, I learned that much of the Great Synagogue was built below the ground, meaning that people descended into the sanctuary. This allowed the sanctuary to look huge from the inside, while still following building regulations in which a synagogue could not be taller than a church.

These were the doors of the Torah’s ark at the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

Another major exhibit at the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History is an area full of panels describing the history of Lithuanian Jewry.  The only downside to this particular exhibit is that there is a lot of text to read.  After a while, I became tired looking up at all of the panels, so I eventually sped read through it.  Other parts of the museum include a short documentary that you can watch, and photos of Jewish life in Lithuania prior to WWII.

In addition to the Tolerance Center, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History owns several other buildings as well.  Most of these buildings’ exhibits are not ready for the public yet but will focus on different aspects of Lithuania’s Jewish history.  The Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History also owns the Memorial Museum of Paneriai, which is a mass grave where the Nazis murdered many of Vilnius’ Jews.  I wanted to visit Paneriai, but, unfortunately, did not have the time.

Only one synagogue out of Vilnius’ 100 still remains. This is the Choral Synagogue, which was built in 1903. Unfortunately, its entrance had scaffolding when I visited.

When I went to visit Lithuania, I honestly had low expectations, but the country exceeded my expectations.  Not only is Vilnius a GORGEOUS city, but I saw more Jewish history publicly displayed there than I had anticipated that I would.

Sources and Further Reading
David, Jono. “Virtual Jewish World: Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania.” Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed January 22, 2021).

Levin, Don. “Lithuania.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Translated by Rami Hann. (accessed January 22, 2021).

“Lithuania.” World Jewish Congress. (accessed January 22, 2021).

Nadler, Allan. “Litvak.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed January 22, 2021).

“The Secrets of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.” The Vilna Shul. (accessed January 22, 2021).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Lithuania.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed January 22, 2021).

Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. (accessed January 22, 2021).

“Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.” Association of European Jewish Museums. (accessed January 22, 2021).

“Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum to be Known as the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.” Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. May 4, 2020. (accessed January 22, 2021).

Wein, Berel and Yaakov Astor. “The Gaon of Vilna.” Jewish History. (accessed January 22, 2021).

Greenwich’s Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum

If you only had one more day to spend in London, and had already seen many of its major museums, where would you go?  When I encountered this dilemma in 2010, I decided to take the Tube (the British subway system) to Greenwich, a borough of London, to see the Royal Observatory.

Britain’s King Charles II decided that Britain ought to have its own astronomical research center.  As Britain continued to increase its presence in the international scene, it needed to simultaneously remain technologically advanced.  Thus, in 1675, work began to build the Royal Observatory on the ruins of Greenwich Castle, which had once served as King Henry VIII’s hunting lodge.  John Flamsteed became Britain’s first Astronomer Royal, and lived at the Royal Observatory, where he performed astronomical research.  The Royal Observatory continued to serve as Britain’s primary astronomical research center until after World War II, when it moved to Herstmonceux and then to Cambridge.  It eventually dissolved in 1998.  However, the original Greenwich Royal Observatory functions as a free museum today.

In the 19th century, as international travel increased, especially with the advent of the railroad, the need for a standardized international time zone system arose.  Therefore, in 1884, twenty-five nations met in Washington D.C. to decide that Greenwich, England would be the location of the Prime Meridian.  This spot was chosen because it had already been represented as the Prime Meridian on many British maps that were used throughout the world (since the Royal Observatory was there), and because the United States had already used the Prime Meridian as the basis for its time zones.  The Prime Meridian is the longitudinal line on a map that measures 0 degrees.  Theoretically, every 15 degrees east or west of the Prime Meridian is one hour earlier or later than the time in Greenwich.

When you visit the Royal Observatory today, you can stand on the Prime Meridian, right outside the building. While I was there, I saw tourists from all over the world taking turns standing on it.  Inside the Royal Observatory, you can learn about the history of astronomy, navigation, and time, and look at a variety of old instruments that have been used in these fields.

After seeing the Royal Observatory, I walked next door to the National Maritime Museum, which is also free.  It documents the history of British seafaring.  The exhibits include a huge collection of maritime paintings, tools used in navigation, and the jacket that Admiral Nelson died in at the Battle of Trafalgar.  Because the museums is housed in a beautiful building, it has been used for the set of several films including the live-action 101 Dalmatians film from 1996.

The Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum merged with two other museums in 2012 to form the Royal Museums Greenwich.  The other museums in this group are the Queen’s House, a 17th century home built for the wife of King James I and now used to display art, and Cutty Sark.  I do no remember seeing the Queen’s House when I was in Greenwich, nor did I see Cutty Sark.  Cutty Sark is a Victorian ship that visited every major port city in the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately, when I was in Greenwich, it was undergoing repairs from fire damage, which is why I did not see it. Apparently, there is also a planeterium at Greenwich, but I do not remember it.

Although the Prime Meridian is a man-made concept, it is still a fun place to visit.

Sources and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Greenwich Meridian.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. (accessed December 19, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Royal Greenwich Observatory.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“History of Cutty Sark.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“History of the National Maritime Museum.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“History of the Queen’s House.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“History of the Royal Observatory.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“What Is Greenwich Mean Time?.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

“What Is the Prime Meridian and Why Is It in Greenwich?.” Royal Museums Greenwich. (accessed December 19, 2020).

Halim Time and Glass Museum

The Halim Time & Glass Museum in Evanston, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) is one of the most beautiful museums that I have ever visited.  Unfortunately, when I went, I was not writing this blog yet, so did not take photos to prove it.  The museum contains approximately 1,100 timepieces in addition to a gorgeous collection of stained glass windows.

The Halim Time & Glass Museum was founded in 2017 by Cameel Halim, an Egyptian immigrant who became wealthy by working in the real estate industry.  Always fascinated with clocks, he only began collecting them about twenty years ago.  His collection includes 200 timepieces that he purchased for $5 million from the collection of the late Seth Atwood.  Atwood’s collection of 1,550 timepieces used to be on display at his Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois, from 1971 until its closing in 1999.  Unfortunately, I never visited the Time Museum, which was once one of the largest museums about the history of time in the world.  After the museum closed, the collection was displayed at the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago for a few years, but then was sadly auctioned off to different bidders, including Halim.

Halim originally planned to open his museum in 2012, however, the Victorian mansion that would have housed the museum burned down in 2011.  Fortunately, none of Halim’s collections were inside the home yet.  However, the fire meant that he had to create a new building for his museum.

When you enter the Halim Museum, you find yourself in the stained glass exhibit, which takes up the entire first floor.  The glass displays include works by a variety of artists including the famous American, Louis Comfort Tiffany.  I am not sure if it is a permanent exhibit, but when I visited the museum, there was a room specifically dedicated to Tiffany and his work.  While going through the stained glass exhibit, you will learn how European stained glass artists usually painted the glass, whereas American styles that evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used new techniques to design glass.  This included layering pieces of colored glass to create different textures and colors in the design.

The remainder of the museum is dedicated to the history of time.  This exhibit begins chronologically, with the oldest clocks first.  The timepieces are from all over the world, although most are European.  There are cuckoo clocks, pocket watches, grandfather clocks, sun dials, chronometers, and many other types of timepieces.  For some of the more unusual clocks, there are screens next to them so that you can click to see a video of how that specific clock looks while it is running.  None of the clocks are currently running at the museum because that would potentially be too loud.  The most elaborate and bejeweled clocks in the museum are those that the British made as gifts for the Chinese emperors during the eighteenth century.  These include clocks that look like bird cages, with the clock part located on the outside bottom of the cage.

The Halim Museum is a little pricey, with regular adult admission being $20.  However, seniors and students get discounts, while children and military personnel can enter for free.  Tours are available to visitors each day at 1 PM, except for Mondays, when the museum is closed.

Sources and Further Reading
“About the Halim Time & Glass Museum.” The Halim Time & Glass Museum. (accessed December 12, 2020).

Bullington, Jonathan. “Evanston Fire Destroys Historic Building Slated to Be Museum.” Chicago Tribune. March 16, 2011. (accessed December 12, 2020).

Haas, Kevin. “Former Rockford Collector’s Rare Clock Sells for Record $6.8M.” Rockford Register Star. December 6, 2012. (accessed December 12, 2020).

Horan, Deborah. “He’s the Man of the Hour for Clock Buffs. LA Times. May 27, 2007. (accessed December 12, 2020).

“It’s About Time.” Roadtrip America. September, 1996. (accessed December 12, 2020).

McColley, Robert and William D. Walters, Jr. World Book Encyclopedia, s. v. “Illinois.” Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1996.

“Stained Glass Masters.” Halim Time & Glass Museum. (accessed December 12, 2020).

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:

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. (accessed November 6, 2020).

“The History of IWM.” Imperial War Museum. (accessed on November 6, 2020).

“The Relevance of Lawrence of Arabia’s Bike.” IWM London is Changing. February 26, 2013. (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. (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. (accessed October 3, 2020).

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.” Visit Springfield Illinois. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“History.” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home.” National Park Service. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home National Historic Site, National Park Service.” Google Arts & Culture. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Tomb.” Visit Springfield Illinois. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln’s New Salem.” Historic Preservation Division. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. (accessed October 3, 2020).

Perlman, Seth. “New Museum Brings All Sides of Abraham Lincoln to Life.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 17, 2005. (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Presidential Library History.” National Archives. (accessed October 3, 2020).“Virtual Tour.” Lincoln’s New Salem. (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. (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Israel Museum.” Google Arts & Culture. (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” The Israel Museum. (accessed September 26, 2020).

“Welcome to Museum.” The Israel 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:

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:

Sources and Further Reading

Cohen, Patricia. “At Museum on 9/11, Talking through an Identity Crisis. The New York Times. June 2, 2012. (accessed September 10, 2020).

“Memorial Guide.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum. (accessed September 10, 2020).

“Virtual Memorial Tour.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum. (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. (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.

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:  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. (accessed July 19, 2020).

Ault, Alicia. “Did Ellis Island Officials Change the Names of Immigrants?” Smithsonian Magazine. December 28, 2016. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Castle Clinton: History & Culture.” National Park Service. May 16, 2015. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” History Channel. April 8, 2020.,their%20ancestors%20to%20Ellis%20Island. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island: Virtual Tour.” National Park Service. April 22, 2020. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Passenger Search.” The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue Cruises Ticket Options.” Statue Cruises. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue of Liberty.” History Channel. July 1, 2019. (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:

Sources and Further Reading

McClelland, Edward. “How Reagan’s Childhood Home Gave Up on Reaganism.” Politico. November 23. 2019. (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Ronald Reagan Birthplace.” Tampico Historical Society. (accessed November 28, 2019).

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home. (accessed November 28, 2019).