Museums—Where Learning is Fun

Story by Cathy Shouse  

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said the late Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister. Fortunately for Hoosiers, there are numerous museums tucked away in unique spots across the state where learning about history is easy and fun.

If you’re thinking that museums are dark and dusty places, think again. Many feature the latest technology that makes history come alive. Organizers continue to update their spaces and add engaging features to make exploring history interesting and interactive as well as memorable. Plus, many places can be found off the beaten path so you can make a quick study of the past while on the way to or from other destinations.

Since each museum focuses on one important aspect or person in history, all it takes is a couple of hours—or less—to learn fascinating, in-depth information. Whether you want to breeze through and catch only the high points or choose to meditate on every title and artifact label is up to you. A visit to the gift shop for something to remember your visit can add a nice touch as well.

Most museums have modest entry fees and some of the hours of operation vary by the season, so calling ahead or checking the website is a good idea.

Where to start in your quest for history? A good laugh can be just what the doctor ordered at The Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy, which opened in 2013 and is one of the newer museums. Located in Vincennes, the organization’s mission is to continue the legacy of Red Skelton through inspiration and education, and it attracts almost 7,000 visitors a year. www.redskeltonmuseum.org

You can learn about Skelton’s many characters, like Freddie the Freeloader and Sheriff Deadeye, by viewing videos and listening to radio recordings of Skelton’s antics. On Saturday July 20, 2019 visit the annual festival that has a parade, storytelling, and more.

“The museum is very nostalgic for visitors who remember seeing Red on TV and they really enjoy the old TV clips and learning information about his early life in Vincennes and seeing all the original costumes and props he used on his TV show,” said Anne Pratt, museum director. “The museum is a state-of-the- art, interactive museum so it is fun for all ages. We love to see multiple generations of families visit with grandparents, parents and children all having fun either reminiscing about Red or experiencing his humor for the first time.”

Given the love of all things basketball in the state, a stop in at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle is a must-see. At 14,000 square feet, it is a storehouse of facts, photos and trophies celebrating mainly Indiana high school players and coaches. Whether you want to stoke the imagination of young ball players in the family with more current records or to take your own trip down memory lane, this one is worth a look. There’s a basketball hoop where you can practice taking that last- second winning shot, and special tributes to Oscar Robertson, and legends like Larry Bird and John Wooden. Check out www.hoopshall.com

For enthusiasts of all 24 NCAA college sports, the NCAA Hall of Champions in Indianapolis is    a great celebration of colleges and universities and the over 400,000 student athletes around the country. www.ncaahallofchampions.org There are sports simulators, trivia challenges and a 1930s retro gymnasium, and much more.

Speaking of sports, Whiting’s newest children’s attraction, the National Mascot Hall of Fame (MHOF), is a 25,000-square- foot, multi-million dollar facility featuring a state-of-the-art, interactive, family fun zone, with a wide range of exhibits, activities and events that celebrate mascot fun. Guests will experience exhibits such as the “Department of Furry Arts”, the “Science of Silliness Lab”, and the “Phuzzical Education Department.” In addition, the venue will host the MHOF’s annual induction ceremonies as well as many other mascot programs and events that will attract visitors from all over the country. www.mascothalloffame.com

Many counties around the state have their own museums which showcase the history of the area. One of note is the Wabash County Historical Museum, which features 20,000 square feet of public exhibition space with 90 interactive exhibits that highlight a variety of local history topics from transportation, waterways, architecture, agriculture, famous families, and more. “The museum is committed to provide family- friendly programming that engages multi-generations and encourages storytelling,” says Mitch Figert, president and CEO of the museum. “We have accomplished this by introducing the Parkview Wabash Education Center, re-vamping many of our exhibits to increase the ability to interact with them, and offering dynamic programming.” The museum holds nearly 175,000 pieces in their collection that range from photographs, military uniforms, family Bibles, business and household items, framed artwork, and more.

For a sobering exploration of history wrapped in a positive message, make a trek to Terre Haute to the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. The atrocities of Auschwitz are featured and the museum also shines a light on a life-affirming message of inspiration and forgiveness, thanks to Terre Haute resident and holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, among others. www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org

Kor and her twin sister were at Auschwitz as children and put through medical testing by their captors. Her story includes those details as well as how she found a path to forgiveness, which she turned into a written statement. She’s also traveled to offer forgiveness in person to those who harmed her.

“Our museum is story based,” said Catie Charlton, office manager of the museum. “We focus on Eva’s story and other survivors. The museum is organized so it’s the story of the holocaust in terms of how it happened. There’s a Nazi propaganda collection.”

A few years ago, Kor participated in an innovative project where survivors were specially chosen to answer approximately 300 questions and be recorded. So although Kor
is occasionally at the museum in person, visitors can always interact with Kor digitally and ask her questions through special technology in a unique room set up for that purpose, one of the few in the country that has this technology available.

If famous figures from the state interest you, the Fairmount Historical Museum in Fairmount offers many items from James Dean’s life as a boy in Fairmount as well as his movies. His Triumph motorcycle, bought while he was in California, is on display, and you can see his journey from Indiana farm boy to international movie icon. There’s also a collection of unique Garfield items since the cartoonist Jim Davis also grew up in Fairmount.

A few years ago, the museum teamed up with Daddy’O’s Clothing, Inc. in Marion to produce a James Dean licensed label red jacket styled after what Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. The jackets have sold out and more have been produced numerous times. www.jamesdeanartifacts.com

“When Lew Bracker {author, James Dean friend} was here, he said it was one of the closest reproductions he had ever seen,” said Christy Berry, museum board member and co-owner of Daddy’O’s. “A portion of the jacket sales goes to support the museum, which sponsors the annual Remembering James Dean Festival scheduled for September 27-29 in 2019.”

For a deeper understanding of fame of a different sort, there’s the Kurt Vonnegut Museum in Indianapolis, open since 2011. See his Smith Corona 2200 typewriter, Vonnegut’s extensive art work, and also his rejection letters and other important papers. Curator Chris LaFave said visitors tell him Vonnegut’s writings are relevant today as we sort through the ageless topics of loneliness and addiction. www.vonnegutlibrary.org

You’ll be encouraged to travel more by Vonnegut’s quote about his home state: I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers, but wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.

With literally hundreds of museums throughout Indiana, it’s impossible to list them all. But here are some highlights worth checking out:

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in DeKalb County offers over 120 cars on exhibit on three levels, and nine automotive themed galleries. Also in DeKalb County, check out the National Auto and Truck Museum.

Richmond boasts several top- notch museums, among them: the Model T Museum, located in the Historic Depot District; Richmond Art Museum, Indiana’s second oldest art museum; Indiana Football Hall of Fame, which honors persons associated with high school, college and professional American football in Indiana; and the Wayne County Historical Museum which houses, among many other notable items, the only two mummies on display in Indiana.

In Kokomo, check out the Howard County Museum, located in the Seiberling Mansion, which features late- Victorian architecture, beautiful handcarved woodwork, and multiple exhibits highlighting the history of Howard County. The Elwood Haynes Museum celebrates the developer of “America’s First Car” in 1894 and houses a collection of his possessions and inventions, including stainless steel, vapor thermostat, multiple alloys, and a revolving exhibit of Haynes automobiles.

While Indianapolis is home to the world’s largest children’s museum, other kid favorites around the state include the Muncie Children’s Museum, with interactive exhibits like water works, a simulated dinosaur bone dig, and animal education; Kids Commons in Columbus, a completely hands- on museum aimed at teaching children through fun interactive exhibits; the Terre Haute Children’s Museum called “three stories of fun, laughter, and exploration in the heart of Terre Haute;” Wonderlab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology in Bloomington, an award-winning science museum located on the B-Line Trail in the heart of the Bloomington Entertainment District; and Fort Wayne’s Science Central, housed in the historic former City Light and Power Plant, with 35,000-square- feet of exhibit space.

Also in Fort Wayne is the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, located downtown and host to permanent collections, traveling national exhibits, and special events including their annual studio glass showcase, “Summer of Glass.”

For art and history buffs, a must-see is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, located in White River State Park in Indianapolis. Visitors can immerse themselves in the diverse cultures of the West and Native America through art and cultural objects.

History lovers should check out the John Hay Center in Salem; he was Secretary of State to Abraham Lincoln and is from Washington County. The Dubois County Museum in Jasper has extensive displays and events, while Lincoln’s Boyhood Home Museum in Spencer County preserves the farm site where Abraham Lincoln lived with his family from 1816 to 1830. Clabber Girl in Terre Haute has a museum dedicated to its beginnings and that of the Hulman family, who also own the Indy 500. Both are displayed in this museum. LaPorte County’s Historical Society Museum features the third largest private gun collection in the world and has over 30 vintage cars, and the area’s Hesston Steam Museum features steam powered equipment, including trains that you can actually ride.

Visitors to Orange County should check out French Lick West Baden Museum, which is not only home the world’s largest circus diorama, but also features exhibits on casino history, hometown legend Larry Bird, and more.