6 Fascinating National Park Museums, from Gettysburg to Yellowstone & More

May 18, 2016Travel Ideas
Gettysburg National Park – Mike Shaffer, Share the Experience

Did you know that one of the world’s largest museum systems is managed by the National Park Service? It’s true! And with over 400 national parks in the system, it’s no wonder that the best places to learn about our collective history is where it actually happened.

One of the central tenets of the National Park Service’s ethos is to collect, preserve, and interpret the countless artifacts, archives, specimens, and manuscripts that bring our past to life. These national park museum collections help further our understanding of the rich cultural, historical, and natural inheritance that is protected and shared with all people within our parks.

Before you set out on that hike, retrace the troop movements across the battlefield, or step back in time at a historic site, be sure to spend some time in the exhibit halls and learning in the galleries of national park museums. The collections preserved in national parks not only played a role in the stories that took place there, they expand our thinking and familiarity with the many narratives that weave together this nation’s fabric.

Yellowstone National Park (ID, MT, WY)

Our nation’s first national park is home to the second largest museum collection within the National Park System. Though not designed as a typical museum, the Yellowstone Heritage & Research Center contains more than 5.3 million items. 

The archives include over 35,000 archeological artifacts, as well as natural science objects, historic records, over 90,000 photographic negatives, and 20,000 rare books and manuscripts – and this doesn’t even include the specimens included within the collection!

Tours of the center are available to the public for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from May to September. They’re limited to 10 participants per tour so it’s best to call ahead and reserve a spot.

Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center

Lowell National Historical Park (MA)

Dedicated to interpreting Lowell’s role in the Industrial Revolution, Lowell National Historical Park tells the stories of the people and places that shaped our nation’s innovations in technology and engineering in the 19th and 20th century.

Get an inside look at the daily activities that fueled the mass-production of textiles at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. Visitors can explore the museum’s interactive exhibits, the weave room, and learn how waterpower, steam power, and electric power evolved the complex’s use of technology.

Exterior of Boott Cotton Mills Museum

From late November to mid-March, the museum is open from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. And from mid-March to late November, visitors can explore the museum daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Gettysburg National Military Park (PA)

The bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought on the quiet fields of what is now Gettysburg National Military Park. Before taking a tour of the park’s trails through the battlefield itself, visitors should be sure to walk through the Museum and Visitor Center to learn about the battle’s significance and its role as a turning point of the war.

Within the museum’s exhibits, visitors will experience multi-media presentations, learn about the battle’s key players, and look upon relics featured in the various galleries. But perhaps the most impressive highlight of the collection is the 377-feet-long, 42-feet-high Gettysburg Cyclorama. The massive painting, which is displayed in a special auditorium, features imagery from Pickett’s Charge and is brought to life with foreground enhancements such as trees, fences, and cannons.

The Museum and Visitor Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from November to March, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April to October. Tickets are required for entry to the museum and can be purchased online or in person.

Mural inside Gettysburg museum

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (CA)

Located within the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building along the picturesque waterfront of the city, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s Maritime Museum offers visitors a unique look into the skills and techniques of the sailors’ trade.

One of the building’s must-see features includes spectacularly colorful WPA-era painted murals created by Sargent Johnson and Hilaire Hiler in the 1930s. Museum exhibits within the building showcase glass-enclosed ship models, artwork crafted by sailors, and snapshots and stories from officers’ lives.  

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

San Francisco Maritime Museum

Ford’s Theater National Historic Site (DC)

The museum collection at Ford’s Theater National Historic Site is sure to send chills up your spine. The site – comprised of Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House (the residence across from the theater where Lincoln died) – includes a museum filled with historical artifacts and exhibits that interpret Lincoln’s presidency and the events that changed the course of our nation’s history.

The collection’s most infamous artifact, the gun used by John Wilkes Booth to shoot President Lincoln, can be seen as you walk through the museum exhibits. Other artifacts include Booth’s unnerving journal, which provides a window into the assassin’s disturbed mind, and the boot and spur worn on the leg Booth broke after leaping from the presidential box to the theater stage.  

Ranger-led programs are offered at the site. Tickets are required to tour the theater, museum, and house, and are best secured through the online reservation system. The museum opens daily at 9 a.m. and the last entrance is at 4 p.m.

Exhibit displayed at Ford's Theater

Thomas Edison National Historical Site (NJ)

Thomas Edison National Historical Site boasts the largest museum collection in the National Park Service with more than 6 million items. The collection – comprised of historical artifacts, archives, and natural history – can be experienced within the park’s two sites: Edison’s home at the Glenmont Estate and the Laboratory complex.

Visitors to the Glenmont Estate, a 29-room Victorian mansion, will be able to travel back in time as they explore the period rooms showcasing major works of art, sculptures, and furnishings. The collections at the estate also include remarkable Edison family mementos, including photographs and awards.

The park’s complex showcases laboratory equipment, furnishings, and the materials associated with the manufactured goods produced by Edison and his team of “muckers.” The world’s first phonograph can also be seen within the phonography gallery at the park.

The Laboratory Complex is open Wednesdays through Sundays and the Glenmont Estate is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the spring, summer, and fall. Tickets to the estate must be obtained at the visitor center located at the complex, so be sure to explore while you’re there!

Inside laboratory of Thomas Edison National Historical Museum

National park museums offer visitors a fascinating way to enrich the in-park experience. Make your park visit more than just gazing upon the landscape or wandering through the rooms of a historic locale; make it a more meaningful adventure by understanding the stories that are brought to life by the park’s collections. Doing so will allow you to dive a little deeper into the rich history interpreted in parks across the National Park System.

Looking for additional ways to explore your national parks? Be sure to check out our other travel ideas for inspiration and insider-tips to making your next #FindYourPark adventure a memorable one.

Photo credits: Yellowstone National Park, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, and Thomas Edison National Historical Site via NPS; Gettysburg National Military Park via Gettysburg Foundation; Lowell National Historical Park via Wikipedia; and Ford’s Theater by Ben Rome via flickr.


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