The Michigan Historical Center is part of a state wide network of history, arts, and library facilities preserving the culture of the state. The museum itself is located in the Michigan Library and Historical Center, which is two blocks from the State Capitol.
The Museum chronicles the history of the state, from Prehistoric times to the present, on four floors of exhibit space (2 floors and 2 mezzanine levels). The galleries progress chronologically, taking the visitor on a voyage into Michigan’s past, with many interesting exhibitions featuring hands-on interactive, rare artifacts, and spectacular re-creations of historic scenes.
We began our tour with a look at the first inhabitants of the region, with an impressive life-sized diorama depicting the Native Americans who first lived there.
There are several interesting Civil War-era artifacts on display, including a “knee stiffener,” a leg iron attached above and below the knee which would severely limit a slave’s mobility if he or she tried to run away. The knee stiffener was given to Quaker Laura Haviland, who was a conductor on Michigan’s Underground Railroad. Haviland and her family opened a school that became one of the first to admit African Americans.
The rest of the second floor galleries focus on important industries in 19th century Michigan, including copper and iron mining, lumbering, and manufacturing.
The Copper Mining gallery features a particularly impressive re-creation of a mine, complete with realistic worker figures and a mule. Videos in the Iron Mining section explain “Jobs in the Mines” and “The Soo Locks.” From the 1880s through the turn of the century, Michigan led the nation in ore production.
The Lumbering Era gallery was an olfactory treat — it smelled like fresh cut wood! An outstanding replica of a Queen Anne style lumber baron’s mansion taught visitors architectural details, such as clapboard siding, brackets, spindles, turned posts, ornamental shingles, and arch latticework.
Our favorite part of the Michigan Historical Museum was the 20th century displays. Most museums focus on the 19th century, and may bring the story through World War II. But very few places talk about The Fifties! The top two floors were devoted to 20th century history, and provided a wealth of interesting and different displays than your typical museum.
Since the automotive industry is a key part of Michigan’s story, the beginning of the display featured a replica of an assembly line at Ford. The scene was juxtaposed with a farming exhibit, which illustrated the two ways of life emerging simultaneously at the dawn of the 20th century.
Not far from the assembly line was a special section called “Labor Struggle.” The exhibit was mounted inside a replica of a union meeting setting. On display was a blood stained shirt worn by Richard Frankenstein when Ford Motor Company’s “Service Men” beat him and other union organizers with wooden clubs during the 1937 strike known as “The Battle of the Overpass.” The shirt was on loan from Wayne State University. It is always impressive when museums tackle the “tough questions” of history, highlighting little known stories that have a great impact on the collective history of our nation.
The 1950s section of the museum was extremely well done. It featured a full scale “S&H Green Stamps" store, with various products you could purchase with your stamps, ranging from aluminum serving pieces and melamine dishes to a Sunbeam mixer, tennis rackets, and Samsonite luggage. The “1957 Detroit Auto Show” gallery fully examined the roll of the automobile in both state and national history.
We spent three hours touring the Michigan Historical Museum. The wide range of artifacts, coupled with the creative exhibition techniques used to display them, was truly impressive. Don’t miss this museum on a trip to Lansing!
This article is excerpted from my ebook "Museum Trips! Lansing, Michigan." For more information, click on the link below. This travelog ebook is fully illustrated with photos of the historic sites of Lansing and includes information on where to eat and where to stay.