The lights of The Majestic Theatre shine brightly down onto a vibrant, red, old-fashioned gas pump and reflect in the windows of the neighborhood tailor. The calm romanticism of a simpler time is quickly broken by a seemingly endless stream of fourth graders who are literally skipping through time on their way to the speakeasy upstairs.[jeez]
Located on Kalamazoo St., only blocks away from the Capitol, the Michigan Historical Museum is a great place to learn more about the state in a creative atmosphere. Traveling from the early settlement of Michigan all the way through to the 1970s, each carefully crafted exhibit illustrates the most important periods and events in state’s history.
Visitors begin at the beginning, stepping off the elevator onto the second floor where a giant elevation map of Michigan hangs opposite the prehistoric exhibits. The gallery space is decorated from floor to ceiling with a beautiful forest mural and a hand carved canoe created to illustrate the fur trade on the Detroit River and the Straits of Mackinac.[copper]
Moving on through history via a bumpy ride on the plank roads that were important in northern migration, visitors enter the Civil War era. Artifacts from the War, including bugles and drums, swords, railroad ticket stubs and cavalry flags from the Fifth Infantry of Michigan are displayed throughout the area along with explanations of Michigan’s role as a free state.
Thick, rough-hewn timbers frame the entryway to the copper mines just around the corner. A rusted mine cart sits in the middle of the cavern surrounded by descriptions of the daily hardships and precarious family life of living in a mining town.
Chris Dancisak, manager of program delivery and community relations for the Historical Museum, said the mineshaft is one of his favorite places in the museum.
“Of course our mine isn’t cold and wet but it does give people, especially kids, an experience that they don’t get to have otherwise,” he said.
A rock tunnel leads out of the mining industry and into lumber production with the whir of a saw and a barking foreman in the background. Only steps away sits a replica of lumber tycoon Charles Hackley’s house with incredible Victorian detail. Upstairs, the home transforms to a one-room schoolhouse where children on field trips are often instructed to sit straight with their backs against the chairs and their hands folded neatly in their laps.
Another elevator ride brings visitors to the third floor, and the twentieth century, where a Model T rolls off the Ford assembly line and into production history. A nearby dealership shows the progression of car styles and the inception of the Big Three automakers. [page]
Next, visitors step out of the dealership onto a brick paved road that leads them into World War I and downtown Detroit. The storefronts of J.L. Hudson’s and S.S. Kresge’s display the latest in home appliances and comforts and just across the street The Majestic Theater promotes Charlie Chaplin’s new film “The Gold Rush”.
In an age when it was scandalous for women to bob their hair, the salon upstairs from Hudson’s presents the onset of the roaring twenties and a wide array of styling tools that look more like torture devices.
“I really like antiques so I thought that the 1920’s hair dresser was very interesting,” said Lynne Erwin, Holt resident and first-time museum visitor.
Michigan’s survival of the Great Depression, the rise of labor unions, the ensuing Flint riots and the production of airplanes for World War II are all highlights of the 1930s and 40s.
The artifacts and photos in the labor exhibit are favorites of tour guide Robert McKerr, now in his ninth year volunteering at the center. “It’s well-done and grabs the strife at that point in history,” he said.
Fallout shelters and atomic bomb reaction instructions, along with an art-deco kitchen and vintage Corvette, are the icons of the 1950s chosen for display in the museum. Meanwhile, the 1960s and 70s are a montage of civil rights protests, green shag carpeting, and Detroit’s very own Motown music.
Originally a small museum in the basement of the Mutual building in downtown Lansing, the center moved to its current home in 1989. Creating all of the exhibits has been a continual project with additions throughout the 90s. Attention to detail and a passion for learning are evident throughout the museum.
“It evolved from a plan from almost 30 years ago now. They were developed long before this location opened and crafted by an exhibit firm with careful input from our staff,” Dancisak said.
Now the museum hosts changing exhibits as well, the next of which is a spotlight on Italian artist Tommaso Juglaris. Juglaris created the works inside the dome of the capitol building. The exhibit will open on October 12 and run through January 9 on the center’s first floor.
Although many of the museum’s 150,000 annual visitors are elementary school children, the Michigan Historical Center has plenty to offer students of all ages.
“I think that museums in general have a value at all levels,” said Dancisak. “As much as we like to spend our time online in the dorms and in our houses, there is nothing like the real elements of history coming alive visually and three-dimensionally.”

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