Published April 14th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
The sparkling new hangar-museum at Atchison’s Amelia Earhart Memorial Airport doesn’t just pay tribute to its namesake’s life and career.
It represents a sequence of events so unlikely and fortuitous that you couldn’t have invented them. From the sole surviving Lockheed Electra 10-E plane — the same kind that went missing in Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe — to the bipartisan efforts to fund its creation, the museum couldn’t be anywhere else, or about anyone else.
And don’t get the wrong idea. This museum doesn’t focus on the enigma of Earhart’s disappearance nearly 86 years ago.
“Yes, she was lost,” says Karen Seaberg, founder and president of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation. “Does the mystery keep her alive? Yes. But she was so much more than that. She was a special person.”
Not every town can boast a pioneering aviator who soared across oceans and continents, after all.
The plane, named “Muriel” for Earhart’s younger sister, serves as the centerpiece of the museum. Fourteen STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-based exhibits surround the plane, offering both historical takes and current-day applications.
Seaberg gave me an enthusiastic tour of the museum Monday, as staffers worked to tie up loose ends before the museum’s opening.
The exhibits include an interactive roller coaster model, inspired by a harrowing episode from the aspiring daredevil’s youth, detailed looks at the inside and outside of aircraft, profiles about influences on Earhart’s life and career, and an interactive dress-up display showing how various careers have changed between the 1930s and today.
That only begins to give a taste of the art deco-inspired museum — like an excellent meal, it offers a range of flavors and textures, with layers of subtlety that can go unnoticed if you’re not paying close attention.
Seaberg credits Kansas-based Dimensional Innovations — a Kansas-based firm — with the continually surprising and engaging design. I marveled as we climbed a flight of stairs to a mezzanine level dubbed “Above the Clouds.” Visitors try their hands at aerial navigation (the carpet is covered with images of clouds and Howland Island, where Earhart planned to land in 1937) while looking up to a circular expanse of glowing stars for assistance.
That holds particular meaning for Seaberg, whose late husband Ladd not only brought the Muriel to Atchison but was an amateur astronomer.
“We didn’t get to do what you just did,” she told me after the tour. “My husband would be over the moon. We never envisioned it would be this way.”
Making the hangar-museum a reality took more than dreaming, of course. It took money.
Corporate and government sponsors included Boeing, Bombardier, FedEx, Garmin, Lockheed Martin and NASA. Seaberg credits both former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (a Republican) and current Gov. Laura Kelly (a Democrat) for rounding up support as well.
While bipartisanship might be scarce in Topeka, at least it still flourishes when paying tribute to a legendary Kansan. A statue of Earhart, incidentally, watches legislators at the Statehouse. Perhaps we should all be grateful it can’t reach out and slap particularly noxious politicians.
“The new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum will celebrate a woman who showed us what it means to ‘reach for the stars,’ ” Kelly said in a news release from the museum. “I’m so glad there will be a place dedicated to showcasing how a fearless Kansan blazed her own trail to become one of the most admired women in the world — inspiring all, especially young girls, for generations to come.”
Nearly nine decades removed from her life, we can afford to see Earhart as a historical inspiration.
And she played an active role in politics of her time, taking a spontaneous flight with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, designing a line of women’s clothing that reflected her individual fashion sense, and sending a letter to her husband-to-be before their wedding demanding her right to individual independence.
Indeed, we revere Earhart today because of her daring crossing of gender barriers and willingness to achieve her ambitions. I wonder what our culture would make of a figure like her today. A Google search of public reaction to outspoken and famous women might offer unfortunate clues.
That bravery — rather than a disappearance that has fueled countless late-night cable shows — marks the Atchison museum. You can’t walk away without feeling inspired. At least, that’s how I felt.
“People will go out of here and want to do things, know that they can, and that the sky’s the limit,” Seaberg said. Amelia Earhart strides in front of her Lockheed Electra 10-E airplane in this image from the 1930s. (Purdue University Libraries)
Clay Wirestone is the opinion editor with the Kansas Reflector, where this story first appeared.