On September 26, over 1400 museums across the country will open their doors for free in celebration of Museum Day, the annual event hosted by Smithsonian magazine. 2015 will mark the 11th year of the event. In 2014, over 400,000 people participated at museums from Puerto Rico to Alaska — a number that is expected to increase this year.
But Museum Day isn’t just about free admission: Many participating institutions will offer special programs and up-close looks at their most unique artifacts and collections. From pardoned turkeys to handcrafted voodoo dolls, here are ten of the most unusual artifacts, exhibits and programs that visitors can enjoy on Museum Day:
The Pardoned Turkeys at Morven Park: Leesburg, VA
Ever wonder what happens to the turkeys pardoned by presidents? Some live here on a 1,000-acre historic property once belonging to Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis. In 2013 and 2014, Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, was chosen as the recipient of that year’s pardoned turkeys — a Thanksgiving tradition that dates back to President Lincoln.
At Morven Park, the turkeys spared from Thanksgiving dinner tables are well taken care of. They have access to modern amenities, like heaters in winter and fans in the summer. While two of the original four turkeys have died, 2013’s Carmel and 2014’s Cheese (formerly paired with Mac) live on, gobbling at visitors and waiting for a new pen mate later this year.
The Master Metalsmith Series at the National Ornamental Metal Museum: Memphis, TN
At the only institution in the United States devoted to the art of fine metalwork, the Metal Museum’s Master Metalsmith series honors the world’s most distinguished metal artists. The series began in 1984 with the naming of Phillip Fike as master metalsmith. Since then, it has brought the work of 30 internationally acclaimed metal artists to the museum for exhibition.
As part of the Museum Day festivities, 2015’s master metalsmith Linda Threadgill will be speaking and giving tours of her work.
Beth Levine: First Lady of Shoes at the Long Island Museum: Stony Brook, New York
As one of history’s most influential shoe designers, Beth Levine built her reputation on innovative, whimsical and business-savvy fashions. In 1966, she was able to convince Nancy Sinatra to wear a pair of her white stiletto boats while promoting the iconic song “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” From then on, the name Beth Levine became synonymous with the shoes she designed for actresses, musicians, icons and First Ladies.
The traveling exhibit “Beth Levine: First Lady of Shoes” will be on display at the Long Island Museum (a Smithsonian Affiliate) on Museum Day. It features an array of her famous footwear, photographs, memorabilia and artifacts exploring how this native Long Islander became an American fashion icon.
Polar Nights at the Anchorage Museum: Anchorage, Alaska
During Polar nights in the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise for over 24 hours. But just because they’re dark and cold doesn’t mean they’re lifeless. A new exhibit at Anchorage Museum (a Smithsonian Affiliate), the largest museum in Alaska, shows visitors that even when the sun is down, life thrives.
Polar Nights immerses visitors in an Arctic night with only a penlight to guide them. Working in conjunction with the Tromsø University Museum in Norway, the exhibit illuminates recent research into how Arctic ecosystems survive.
1924 Berliner Helicopter No.5 at the College Park Aviation Museum: College Park, MD
In 1909, in a field near what is now College Park, Maryland, Wilbur Wright taught the first American military officers, Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Frederic Humphreys, how to fly an airplane. Later that year, Lt. Humphreys became the first military pilot to fly a military plane solo.
Today, the College Park Airport boasts the distinction of being the “world’s oldest continuously operating airport” thanks to Wilbur Wright’s efforts. The College Park Aviation Museum, which overlooks the airport’s runway, boasts an amazing collection of aeronautical artifacts that celebrates the area's airplane history.
Perhaps the most fascinating item on display is the 1924 Berliner Helicopter No. 5, on loan from Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Designed by the father and son team of Emile and Henry Berliner, the helicopter became the first to achieve controlled flight.
101 Rocket City Inventions at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center: Huntsville, AL
It may not be as famous as the Kennedy Space Center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is NASA’s largest facility. For over 50 years, it has been a key location for the development and testing of NASA rockets, satellites and shuttles. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center (a Smithsonian affiliate) is home to the most comprehensive collection of U.S. manned spaceflight hardware in the world.
The exhibit “101 Rocket City Inventions” highlights inventions that helped transform Huntsville into “Rocket City.” Devices on display include an X-ray telescope that delivered the first high-resolution picture of the sun, a 1908 Quick monoplane and the OttiMat, a mat made out of recycled human hair that’s been proven to help clean up oil spills.
The First Edition of the First Published Collection of Uncle Remus Stories at the Uncle Remus Museum: Eatonton, GA
In 1880, Joel Chandler Harris published his first collection of Uncle Remus stories based on slave tales he had heard while working as a printers’ devil at Turnworld Plantation. Told through the voice of the character Uncle Remus, they recount the exploits of Br’er Rabbit and his friends. At the time, the stories were celebrated for accurately depicting 19th-century Southern dialect and culture. Later, these stores would be the inspiration for Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South. Today, both the stories and the movie are considered controversial for their stereotypical depictions of black people and their revisionist take on slave plantations.
The Uncle Remus Museum in Harris’ hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, is the only museum devoted solely to his work. The collection’s prized possession is a recently donated first edition of Harris’s first collection of Uncle Remus stories, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation. Museum Day offers a chance to explore the legacy of Harris’ works with local historians and docents.
Cloktoberfest at the National Watch and Clock Museum: Columbia, PA
There is no better time than the present to pay a visit to the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. All corny puns aside, this museum boasts the largest and most comprehensive horological (relating to the science of measuring time) collection in North America. Of the 12,000 pieces in the museum, none are more popular than the Engle clock. Built in the 1870s, the clock stands 11 feet tall and was called by the “eighth wonder of the world” by its builder.
On Museum Day, this Smithsonian Affiliate museum will host its first ever Cloktoberfest. There will be behind-the-scenes tours, kids’ activities and experts on hand to help visitors determine the history and origin of their family heirloom timepieces.
The Oldest Operating Wooden Carousel in the U.S. at the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum: Leavenworth, KS
In the late 19th century, Charles Wallace Parker revolutionized the carousel business when he invented portable carousels — “Carry-Us-Alls” — with interchangeable parts. Soon, C.W. Parker carousels were bringing joy across the country.
The C.W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas, (the company moved after feuding with Abilene town leaders in 1911) houses artifacts, photographs and archives dedicated to the carousel king. Of course, the real treasures of the collection are the carousels. You can even view the circa-1850 Primitive Carousel — though it is too fragile to ride, it’s the oldest operating wooden carousel in the United States.
Cinnamon Black at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum: New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans’ original voodoo museum is tucked away in the French Quarter, about a half a block from Bourbon Street. Founded in 1972, the museum pays tribute to a New Orleans folk tradition that dates back to the 18th century. Beads, dolls, candles, bones, jars to store souls and human skulls make up a collection that aims to tell not only the story of voodoo, but aspires to keep the tradition alive.
On Museum Day, local voodoo practitioner Cinnamon Black will be at the museum to speak with visitors and handcraft Louisiana voodoo dolls.