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'All about Amelia,' Earhart's hometown of Atchison will open a new aviation museum in her honor

A silver, twin-propeller airplane sits inside a large building. School children and adults stand nearby, looking at it.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A Lockheed Electra 10-E, named Muriel after Amelia Earhart's sister, rests inside the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum in Atchison.

The Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum is slated to open in 2023. It honors the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937 on a doomed voyage around the world. But she’s still a big presence in Atchison, Kansas, where she was born and lived for about a decade with her grandparents. Despite moving around to other cities, it’s the place she called home.

During the third weekend of July, the town's population of about 10,000 more than doubles for the annual Amelia Earhart Festival.

“We are all about Amelia,” said Karen Seaberg, who chairs the festival. “You have Amelia Earhart Highway, Amelia Earhart Bridge, Amelia Airport. And so the festival has kept that alive.”

Downtown, blocks of Commercial Street are lined with antique cars. Vendors sell honey and candles, and a 7-piece ragtime group plays rollicking renditions of songs from Earhart's era. There’s also cake.

“We always do a cake every year and hand it out free to everybody that’s down here on the mall,” said Ryan Molt, as she passed out thick squares of chocolate and vanilla. “Just kind of a little, 'Happy birthday, Amelia.'”

Despite Amelia Earhart's name and likeness on signs, buildings, statues and even a hillside in Atchison, there's an appetite for more. A new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum, exploring the trailblazer's impact on aviation, is set to open to the public in 2023.

The centerpiece: a gleaming Lockheed Electra 10-E named Muriel, after Earhart’s sister.

Karen Seaberg, the festival chair, also serves as president and founder of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation. The foundation raised funds for the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum.

Seaberg said it was Grace McGuire, a New Jersey flight instructor, who tracked down the aircraft. Earhart flew in one just like it in 1937 when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in an around-the-world flight attempt.

“There were only 14 Es made,” said Seaberg. “Amelia’s was 12 or 13 off the line, and this one was second off the line. So it was probably the prototype that came off first, and this was probably the first one that really was used.”

McGuire restored the plane for three decades, with plans to attempt the same flight as Earhart. After an illness, McGuire knew she wouldn’t be able to complete the flight, Seaberg said, so she decided to sell the plane to the museum.

The Lockheed Electra is now housed inside a new hangar built for the museum at the town's airport, where visitors got a sneak peek during this year's festival.

Alex LaFave is a pilot and aviation enthusiast who lives in Basehor, Kansas. He brought his wife, Miranda, and two kids, ages 2 and 4, to Atchison for a look at the polished, chrome and red aircraft.

Posterboard on easels around the hangar previewed future plans for the museum's history and exhibits focused on science, technology, engineering and math. A short film described Amelia Earhart's life and career.

Children get a sneak peak of the museum's Lockheed Electra at a preview event during the Amelia Earhart Festival in July.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Children get a sneak peak of the museum's Lockheed Electra at a preview event during the Amelia Earhart Festival in July.

Until the festival, the Lockheed Electra had been under wraps during museum construction.

“You don’t see a Lockheed Electra all that often,” LaFave said, “so it’s nice to come to give it a look.”

Putting the pieces together

About an hour south and east of Atchison, in Overland Park, Kansas, the main fabrication floor at Dimensional Innovations is where the design, build and tech firm puts together some of the museum’s exhibits.

The museum’s curved welcome desk — still waiting to be shipped up the road to Atchison — showcased design elements used throughout the exhibits.

“Our designers really wanted to bring in the art deco feel of Amelia and her era,” said project manager Gabrielle Klockau, “so a lot of walnut, a lot of brushed aluminum, a lot of rivets. You can see there in the detail on the bottom and polished aluminum.”

Future museum exhibits are on view nearby, including a touch-screen display shaped like an oversized book where visitors will be able to swipe through pages of information about Earhart’s early years and career, and learn about the women who inspired her.

Tucked in another room, a work-in-progress: a full-scale model of the Lockheed Electra’s cockpit, made of foam, metal parts and fiberglass. Once it’s finished, people will be able to duck down and climb inside.

“You'll be able to sit in there, turn a steering wheel, flip switches, and hear various sounds and lights,” said Klockau. “We'll go through sunsets and sunrises," so people can experience what Earhart must have seen looking out the window of her cockpit.

Gabrielle Klockau, at Dimensional Innovations in Overland Park, demonstrates a virtual reality game being developed for visitors to the museum.
Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
At Dimensional Innovations in Overland Park, Gabrielle Klockau demonstrates a virtual reality game being developed for the museum.

Installation at the museum back in Atchison is already underway and more pieces will be making their way to the museum over the next few months. Then the testing process begins, before the museum opens to the public.

Dimensional Innovations' senior practice manager Trisha Roberts Parker works with the tech team assembling all the parts.

“We really wanted to communicate all about Amelia — not so much about her life growing up, because there are other museums that already do that — but we really wanted to focus on Amelia as a pioneering woman in her time,” she said. “And also some of the contributions that she made to her field in general.”

A computer-generated Earhart will greet visitors to the museum. Other tech innovations include a virtual reality game that recreates the 1932 flight when Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

There’s also a touch screen where visitors can cast their vote on theories about what happened to Earhart that day in 1937, when she disappeared on her way to Howland Island in an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.

"So there's 'crashed and sank,'" Roberts Parker read from the options on the screen, "castaway, the search continues, assumed identity, reversed course, captive in Saipan, and captured."

And though we may never know what happened to Earhart on that final flight, stories told at the new museum about her life and impact as a pilot will continue to be celebrated throughout Atchison.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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