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Top Ten Artifacts to See Before You Die

Experiences resonate differently for each individual. But these are the artifacts that were so powerful for me, I believe every American should see them in his or her lifetime.

1. The Star Spangled Banner
National Museum of American History
Washington, DC


In 1814, during the War of 1812, this very flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. The flag was loaned to the Smithsonian in 1907 and donated in 1912. In 1998 a staff of Smithsonian conservators and curators began an extensive conservation project on The Star Spangled Banner. Its new state-of-art gallery controls temperature, humidity and light. The display also includes an exhibit about the flag’s history and the conservation process.

2. First Ladies Gowns
National Museum of American History
Washington, DC


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History also houses an amazing array of textiles worn by America’s First Ladies. The most impressive are the gowns and accessories that belonged to the earliest First Ladies, the wives of our “Founding Fathers.” The most recent First Lady’s inaugural gown is usually on display, bringing history into the 21st century for visitors.

3. The Wright Flyer
National Air & Space Museum
Washington, DC


The Wright flyer was the very beginning of powered flight. It is displayed in the National Air & Space Museum with lifelike figures of Orville and Wilbur Wright to help bring it to life. When you see it in person, it is amazing that the contraption even got off the ground!

4. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence
National Archives
Washington, DC


Few documents are more important to our national heritage than our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They are both reprinted in countless American history textbooks, but nothing beats seeing the real thing. They are on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives.

5. Kennedy’s Presidential Limo
Henry Ford Museum
Dearborn, MI


Although the limo JFK was riding in when he was assassinated was retrofitted and re-used by President Johnson, it is extremely powerful to be standing in front of it. There are no traces of blood or bullets in the limo, but just knowing what happened in that car brings chills through your body.

6. Rosa Parks Bus
Henry Ford Museum
Dearborn, MI


Rosa Parks did not intend to become a leader of the civil rights movement. She was tired and didn’t want to give up her seat. You can actually board the bus where she took a stand against discrimination at the Henry Ford Museum.

7. Lincoln’s Chair from Ford’s Theatre
Henry Ford Museum
Dearborn, MI


The chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre is now part of the permanent collection at The Henry Ford Museum. It is even spattered with his blood.

8. Air Force One
National Museum of the United States Air Force
Dayton, OH


Visitors can reserve a spot on a bus to take them onto Wright Patterson Air Force Base to view several aircraft that were used as Air Force One. You can actually board the planes and walk through them. The most amazing plane is the one that transported President Kennedy’s body from Texas to Washington DC. Photos show the visitors exactly where Johnson took the presidential oath in the air, with Jackie Kennedy at his side. You can actually stand in the very spot where that historic event took place.

9. Something from the Titanic
(blockbuster traveling exhibits)


There is something about Titanic that continues to mystify us nearly a century after it sank. The most powerful artifacts in the traveling exhibits are the ones that were at the bottom of the sea that remain unbroken. Plates, jewelry, suitcases, glasses and other artifacts have been retrieved from the ocean floor. If the exhibit comes to a museum near you, GO SEE IT.

10. Mr. Rogers’ Sweater
Pittsburgh History Center
Pittsburgh, PA


Some artifacts make a warm, fuzzy connection with your childhood. Thousands of Generation Xers grew up with Mr. Rogers’ friendly face on TV. A native of Pittsburgh, he donated one of his infamous sweaters to the History Center. This bit of pop culture will always make you smile.

What are some of the most powerful artifacts you’ve ever seen? Stop in the Museums Forum to talk about them!
Future articles will include the best museums and historic sites. Email the Museums Editor with your own picks for the Top Ten.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
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