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Earhart Museum nominated for top award

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This story originally appeared at Flyingmag.com.

By Meg Godlewski

In April 2023, the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum opened in Atchison, Kansas, and according to Executive Director Mindi Love Pendergraft, it is so popular with visitors — who often come from across the country — that it is in the running for USA Today’s Best New Museum.

Since this is a people’s choice award, the public is invited to vote.

“I think the editors recognized we are the first and only museum dedicated to the aviation legacy of Amelia Earhart, one of the world’s most admired women,” said Pendergraft. “It may also be that the museum offers a rare blend of state-of-the-art STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] interactives with history storytelling that uniquely takes visitors on a journey through Amelia’s trailblazing life.”

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Pendergraft, a native of Kansas, grew up hearing stories about the famous aviatrix. She was at the museum on opening day.

“I was drawn by how the museum tells Amelia’s story in a way that brings her to life beyond the allure of Amelia the ‘icon’ to present a person who boldly faced real challenges and struggles in the pursuit of her dreams — and used her success to inspire others,” she said. “I’m also impressed by how the museum engages visitors, particularly young people, with hands-on STEM concepts as they journey through Amelia’s life. The museum is responding to an urgent need to help young people consider careers in aviation, aerospace and other STEM-related career paths of the future.”

The museum includes hands-on STEM activities for young people. (Photo: Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum)

The centerpiece of the facility is the world’s last remaining Lockheed Electra 10-E, named Muriel after Earhart’s younger sister. The airplane is identical to the aircraft Earhart used on her final flight in her attempt to fly around the world. Earhart’s aircraft disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937. She was attempting to reach Howland Island to meet up with the Coast Guard cutter Itasca. There was sporadic radio contact, with Earhart indicating she was lost and running low on fuel, then radio silence.

The U.S. Navy spent weeks searching for Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Noonan, but no trace was found. To this day, the search was the largest effort of its kind by the Navy with the exception of the search for the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Beyond the aviatrix

Earhart was more than a pilot — she was a trendsetter and role model for women, advocating for them to pursue higher education and careers. She had a keen interest in the sciences and used her celebrity status to advocate for social causes. She was close friends with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, even persuading her to skip out on a state dinner — despite the fact they were dressed in formal gowns — to go flying.

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“Many of her accomplishments were underrated,” said Pendergraft. “I’m a native Kansan who grew up knowing about Amelia, but until I joined the Museum I had no real idea of her many accomplishments and influences beyond the headlines — many of which are underestimated, like working as a mechanic, nurse and student adviser at Purdue to encourage other women.”

Pendergraft said the museum started gaining attention before it even opened. In January, Smithsonian Magazine named the museum one of the Top 10 Most Anticipated Openings in 2023, and in the fall the museum was profiled by the Midwest Travel Journalists Association with its annual GEMmy Award as one of the “gems of travel” as it “offers an exceptional experience to travelers.”

A few weeks ago, museum officials were notified by the editors of USA Today’s 10Best readers’ choice awards that theirs was one of 16 museums in the country to be nominated.

“We didn’t know about the contest and were beyond thrilled to be nominated,” Pendergraft said. “We’ve since learned that 10Best nominees are submitted by a panel of travel experts, and then the 10Best editors narrow the field to select the final set of nominees for the public to vote on.”

Voting is done online and readers can cast a ballot once per category, per day, until the cutoff of noon next Monday.

“If we reach the No. 1 spot, the museum will be featured in USA Today and recommended across USA Today’s travel and tourism platforms as a top destination in the U.S.,” Pendergraft said. “This special honor will not only shine a bright spotlight on the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum, but it will also heighten public interest in exploring the many stellar museums and tourism attractions across the Midwest.”

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Other museums in the running include the Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas, Museum of Broadway in New York, Gettysburg Beyond Battle Museum in Pennsylvania, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in New York, and Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside, California.

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