Directly across the street from my wonderful accommodations in Wichita, the Hotel at Old Town, trees and lampposts line a plaza framed by brick streets and sidewalks. Crowded on farmers market days, today I had to dodge only skateboarders to reach the attraction that anchors the square, the Museum of World Treasures.
Housed in a former three-story brick warehouse for paper, the museum welcomed me with a dinosaur skeleton outside the double-door entrance. Over the course of only 20 years since its founding, the museum has expanded into a truly oddball collection of items from millennia ago to the very recent past. It specializes in nothing; this is not a museum dedicated to natural history, for instance, or art. Rather, its accumulation of manifold items and relics offers a global look at what we’ve done with, and found in, our world.
It all begins on the ground floor, with prehistoric creatures large and small. Three complete fossil dinosaur skeletons anchor the collection, a fierce assemblage that makes you thankful man did not live beside these beasts as neighbors, even though the museum has assigned them some very un-beastly names, like Ed and Cutie. Ivan the Tyrannosaurus rex, when it was unearthed in 2007, had the most complete tail of any T. rex, missing only three vertebrae. Skeletons of creatures that swam in the Western Inland Sea that is now the Great Plains of the United States would have challenged the toughest fishermen trying to reel them in. A huge family could have fed off the Xiphactinus fish for weeks, if its razor-sharp teeth didn’t slice and dice the family first.
I moved on from these prehistoric monsters to what they may have been stomping and swimming over. The spectacular colors of rocks and minerals that have been extracted from the earth, from iron pyrite to zinc ore, from a three-foot-long amethyst geode to fluorescent rocks, drew me in like a miner to gold ore and directly to the massive chunk of green malachite, with its polished/rough surface and its swirls and bubbles.
Back to the living, I walked my way through centuries of history among more than half a dozen different civilizations with exhibits that occupy half the floor. Ancient Egypt features sarcophagi, figurines, jewelry, and a pair of 3,000-year-old female mummies who, with mouths agape and crooked teeth still in place, look like they were embalmed at the exact same moment of an excruciating death. Pottery embellished with images of ladies and gentlemen from ancient Greece displays the talents of those who were starting to realistically portray the human form, and a bust of Greek goddess Athena captures what someone in 450 BC thought she must have looked like. Ancient Rome is resurrected via its mosaics and a 50’-long timeline displaying bronze, silver, and gold coins from just about every Roman emperor, accompanied by text detailing their escapades and triumphs. Long before Columbus opened up the New World to Europeans, pre-Hispanic Americans were creating flashy golden jewelry and shrinking heads, both of which are on view. Rounding out the international scene, masks from Ghana and a leopard statue from Nigeria compose part of the African section, and a collection of marble Buddhas, including one particularly plump, jolly chap with enormous ears and saggy man breasts, enliven the Asian collection.
I climbed up the central spiral staircase to the second floor and stepped into European history, with Viking helmets from around 550 and Dark Ages artifacts, factoids about the Black Death (for instance, physicians advised Pope Clement VI in the 1300s to surround himself with lit torches because this divine fire would keep the disease at bay — and they were sort of right; although the fire wasn’t divine, it did keep away the plague-carrying fleas), and the emergence of the Renaissance.
The light of the Renaissance faded as I moved into the gloom, doom, and kaboom of war: U.S. Revolutionary War, U.S. Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Weapons and uniforms from the 1860s and medical kits and c-rations from the 1960s represent the way-back when and the not-so-way-back when on the battlefield. A photograph of the young Romanov family suggests they had no inkling of their upcoming fate, although a photo of a crazed Rasputin hints at the madness that would soon descend on Russia. The World War II exhibit especially engaged me with its diverse collection that exceeded the usual guns and ammunition, including the sheet music for a Walt Disney movie in which Donald Duck spends his days building bombs and saluting Hitler until he wakes up and, very relieved, realizes it was just a dream; heart-wrenching photos of orphaned children among the rubble of Europe; a Japanese propaganda poster of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a grinning, ham-handed predator; a box of Hershey’s chocolate air-dropped into Berlin; and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The Hall of Presidents displays copies of documents written and signed by U.S. presidents from Washington through Obama and a cross-section of presidential paraphernalia. A timeline of each presidency highlights the key events and introduces you to (or reminds you of) what transpired under each one. It’s an effective and easy-to-absorb way to revisit the so-called leaders of the free world, especially the ones who don’t get recalled as easily, such as the underrated James Polk, the 11th president, who accomplished all four of his major goals, before age 55: reestablishing an independent treasury system, reducing tariffs, acquiring the Oregon Territory (from Great Britain), and acquiring California (from Mexico), the latter two realizing the nation’s notion of Manifest Destiny. He also admitted three states into the Union, opened both the Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution (as well as what is today Panama to trade and transport and set the groundwork for the Panama Railway, the great canal’s forerunner), and saw the groundbreaking of the Washington Monument and the issuance of the first U.S. postage stamp.
Onto the third and final floor, I was exposed to a heterogeneous mixture of all things Americana. An old Kansas state flag, a frontier log cabin diorama, the story of the Pony Express (a long-lived legendary phenomenon about a very short-lived historical blip), manuscripts from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and collections of works by Robert Frost and Mark Twain. Perhaps the oddest object here is the silver and turquoise-colored household gas iron that was introduced in 1929. Unlike existing irons that had to be heated over an open flame, this new iron used a contained flame to distribute heat evenly. Unfortunately, the fuel source (gasoline or alcohol, for instance) increased the risk of fires and explosions — not exactly what a happy homemaker would want when ironing a shirt; production ceased in 1948.
Fun to visit all year long, particularly on a cold or rainy or snowy Wichita day, the Museum of World Treasures emerges as a great indoor destination, especially if you don’t know what you’re in the mood for. This place has you covered.
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