All museums are not created equal. Some are quite good, if not notable. Some are little more than dry, dusty repositories of miscellaneous stuff. A few, however, set a high bar for interest and even direct involvement.
“Please touch” is the guiding light at some of the best. Here’s a collection of five that let you do everything from change a race car tire to be a basketball broadcaster, from walk inside a tornado to experience a World War II submarine mission. The collection is dotted around the country. Let’s go east to west.
NASCAR Hall of Fame
Charlotte, North Carolina
You don’t have to know the first thing about stock car racing to take the checkered flag at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.
However, if you do an online search for “Thunder Road and Robert Mitchum,” you’ll learn the historical connection between today’s wildly popular sport and mid-1900s Appalachian moonshine runners. That will explain a phrase you’ll see at the Hall of Fame: “In the beginning, there wasn’t just a need for speed, there was a need for shine.”
The 278-seat High Octane Theater offers an immersive experience. Its 12-minute movie tells NASCAR’s story from its start on the beach and asphalt of Daytona, Florida, and offers background on its moonshine history.
Glory Road, the museum’s huge exhibit of 18 historic race cars on a banked track, is another major attraction. Visitors learn about six generations of NASCAR premium series cars, starting with the 1952 No. 2 Hudson Hornet driven by Marshall Teague. The Hudson Motor Company was the first manufacturer in NASCAR history to support a racing team.
Nearby, you can get behind the wheel and zoom around a track yourself. OK, you’re in racing simulators, but the experience is excitingly realistic. The simulators’ racecourse matches each week’s NASCAR race during the season.
More involvement is at the Pit Crew Challenge: Jack up a car, change a tire with a real air gun, fill the fuel tank. Your competitive spirit will emerge.
National World War II Museum
Throughout the past two decades, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans has simultaneously told the overarching story of the war that changed the world while also focusing on wartime realities and individuals’ experiences.
Visits start in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, the complex’s first component, which includes the museum’s original D-Day exhibit; a re-created 1940s train station that invites you to follow new recruits on their way to war; and the museum’s newest permanent exhibit, which tells the war’s story on the homefront.
Actor Tom Hanks was the executive producer of a special attraction that puts you in the middle of the action around the world. It is “Beyond All Boundaries,” a production in the Solomon Victory Theater that is a journey through the whole war. Hanks describes it as “an immersive, 4-D, cinematic journey, in multi-layered environments with panoramic theatrical special effects.”
Even more personal is “Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience.” This attraction places you aboard the most successful submarine of World War II for its fifth and final war patrol. Twenty-seven visitors are on each patrol, and each represents a specific Tang crewmember. Many will be called upon to perform specific tasks. At the end, you learn whether you survived.
The museum’s multibuilding campus continues to expand: New in 2020 was the 280-room Higgins Hotel. And major exhibitions add reasons for return visits, making it easy to devote several hours to a group’s visit.
Indianapolis Children’s Museum
The name is the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, but its exhibits, attractions and activities appeal to all ages. How could it not, since it is the world’s largest children’s museum at 815,700 square feet and Indiana’s top nonsports attraction?
Among its must-see and all-ages attractions are “Fireworks of Glass,” a 43-foot-tall tower of 4,800 pieces of blown glass, the work of the famous Dale Chihuly; “National Geographic Treasures of the Earth,” re-creations of three archaeological sites — a pharaoh’s tomb, China’s terra cotta soldiers and a ship Captain Kidd commandeered; and “Dinosphere: Now You’re in Their World,” where you are a small visitor in a land of giants.
Perhaps the most compelling exhibit that appeals to adults is “The Power of Children: Making a Difference.” Through the use of live theater and real artifacts, you can become immersed in the lives of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, Ryan White and Malala Yousafzal.
Their stories — of trying to survive the Holocaust, enduring the trauma of integrating a segregated New Orleans school in 1960, overcoming the prejudice against early AIDS patients and standing up for the rights of girls to be educated in the face of Taliban repression — are powerful and memorable, regardless of your age.
For a total change of pace, zoom into “Beyond Spaceship Earth,” an immersive, three-part experience that takes you into space to see how the International Space Station works. No training is required.
College Basketball Experience
Kansas City, Missouri
“The College Basketball Experience is a hall of fame that is very different,” said Celeste Lupercio, the attraction’s senior director of sales, marketing and events. “It’s a dynamic place. When you are here, you are absolutely going to pick up a basketball.”
She’s right on the money because the word “experience” is the key aspect of a destination that celebrates the excitement of college basketball. In addition to the memorable and enlightening Hall of Fame displays about stellar players and inspirational coaches are opportunities to pick up a basketball and show your stuff.
You can feel the pressure of competition at “Beat the Clock,” where you’re on the spot to make a game-winning shot before the buzzer sounds. Another test of concentration is “Step to the Line,” where your challenge is to make as many consecutive free throws as you can in a set amount of time. If you feel particularly agile, you will gravitate to “Slam Dunk,” where you can impress your fans. It’s easier than you may think because there are five dunking courts with baskets at different heights, starting at 7 feet.
A different skill is required at another attraction. It’s an ESPNU broadcast desk where you channel your inner sportscaster to call highlights of an actual NCAA basketball game. That’s a task far more difficult that it sounds, but it can be riotously funny and memory-making.
Physicist, college professor, high school science teacher, Manhattan Project scientist and advocate of lifelong learning Frank Oppenheimer was the creator of the Exploratorium along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
While teaching at the University of Colorado, he developed a “library of experiments” so his students could explore scientific phenomena at their own pace. Outside the classroom, he was alarmed by the public’s shortcomings in scientific knowledge, and that led to development of a science museum like no other. It’s a San Francisco treat.
Instead of docents, the Exploratorium has “explainers,” young people who are trained and supported by staff scientists and educators to help you enjoy and learn from more than 650 interactive exhibits that fill 75,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Visitors can walk into an enclosure and get the sense of a whirling tornado, sit in a bronze disc 8 feet in diameter and hear the whisper of a similarly situated friend 80 feet away, use a bicycle wheel to feel how a gyroscope works or make funny faces while viewing themselves in a gigantic mirror developed not for an amusement arcade but as a key element in flight simulators to train airplane pilots.
“Here you learn science by doing,” said Avi Martin of the Exploratorium’s communications staff. “Every exhibit we put on the floor involves you. Do them and see what you learn. There’s no guided path. Follow your curiosity.”