Canton, Ohio: William McKinley Museum

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Since I haven’t been in the States since last December, most of my posts have, by necessity, been very UK-centric.  I thought I’d liven things up a bit for any American readers with a post about one of my favourite museums in Ohio, the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.  Located in Canton, near Ida McKinley‘s childhood home and the First Ladies’ Library (which, shamefully, I have yet to visit), it’s a worthy destination for anyone in Northeast Ohio.

For some idea of scale.  Yep, those doors are huge!

For some idea of scale. Yep, those doors are huge!

One of my goals is to eventually visit all the presidential museums in the US, but as my current total stands at one, that’s going to take some doing.  I haven’t even made it to the other ones in Ohio, like Hayes, Harding, and Taft, which is really just a poor show on my part.  I have been to Garfield’s tomb in Lakeview cemetery many times, but never to his actual home, largely because it used to be run by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and Western Reserve has upset me with its decline in quality over the years.  In fact, I’d never even been to the McKinley Museum until about two years ago, despite having lived within forty miles of it for most of my life (which may sound like a lot to British readers, but forty miles is nothing in America.  My dad has been known to make the drive to Canton for the sole purpose of procuring a Bittner from Taggart’s. (Taggart’s is admittedly well worth visiting if you’re already in Canton for McKinley.  I’m partial to their hot fudge sundaes myself.)).  This is all a roundabout way of me explaining that I don’t have any other presidential museums to compare McKinley’s with, so I don’t know if it’s a typical example of its type or not.

This picture was taken in October.  The trees will not be this pretty if you visit now.

This picture was taken in October. The trees will not be this pretty if you visit now.

The first thing you’ll notice as you drive up to the museum is the giant mausoleum at the top of a hill.  A hill that is accessible by walking up about a million steps.  Many locals seem to use these steps for their cardio routines, including running and some strange aerobics moves, so you’ll have to dodge them on the way up, but will be rewarded by a nice view (see above).  If you come in non-winter months, you should be able to have a peek inside the mausoleum wherein William and Ida are interred.  It’s not as ornate as Garfield’s tomb, but then again, it was built well after the peak of Victorian ostentation (which I’m not knocking, I have a lot of random crap in my flat), so that’s to be expected.  It’s totally free to just come check out the mausoleum, but obviously you’ll want to have a look round the museum as well, which is $8.

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I love the dress!

I always like to head upstairs first, where you’ll come across a tiny room screening a film about the financing and construction of the mausoleum and the planetarium, which I have never been in.  The shows are sporadic, and that’s not really what I’m there for, though you might want to check their website for the times if it appeals to you.  The first section of the museum is devoted to the history of Canton, and you’ll learn that the early settlers all have satisfyingly long-winded biblical names.  I swear one of them was called Zebezekial or something.  There are a few displays of various machinery, and more of clothing and furniture as you progress through time.  Sometimes a volunteer will be passing through and offer to show you how some of the stuff works, including an old crank record player that isn’t a Victrola, but some other rare type that actually had impressive resonance.

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This is blurry because of the spinning, I swear! Though I have no excuse for all the other blurry pictures on here.

The best things about this section are the interactives, which are primarily the vacuum chair, and the spinny thing shown above.  Canton is the home of Hoover vacuums (side note, British people call vacuuming “hoovering,” yet every vacuum I’ve used here has either been a Dyson or Miele.  Intriguing), so the museum has devised a chair hanging from a chain which is hooked up to a Hoover. You sit down, and the vacuum will suck the chair upward until your legs are dangling.  I suppose it’s at least a good advertisement for the power of a Hoover, and is also fun. I could spend all day messing around in the vacuum chair, but I can usually only handle about one rotation of the spinning thing before I want to hurl.  I think it’s supposed to be demonstrating the power of different types of force, but is really just a self-powered glorified carnival ride, which can probably be better appreciated by people who don’t suffer from motion sickness.

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To add to the carnival atmosphere, they also have a Laughing Sal, and her maniacal laugh will indeed haunt you as you make your way through the rest of the museum.  There is a back room which is generally used for special exhibits; the ones I recall seeing were dollhouses and Christmas ornaments, but they change every couple of months.  Excitingly, you’re not done yet, as there is still a “street of yesteryear” awaiting you.  I am totally unashamed about my love for these recreated 19th century streets you see every now and again.  Although this one lacks the authentic smells that I adore, it’s nonetheless a good effort.

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The museum seems like it’s never terribly crowded, so I have generally been able to wander the street alone and pretend that I have somehow travelled back in time (because I am that lame).  It’s not like a living history museum or anything, so there’s not people there to pester you.  Rather, they’ve replaced actual people with mannequins sporting hilariously bad wigs, which I think we can all agree is a thousand times better than having to converse with some random person who is trying to stay in character.

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You can pop in and out of various shops, and they’ve even got a set of stairs leading up to a second row of shops.  The firehouse has a pole you can slide down, but I chicken out every time.  The thing is seriously only seven feet high, at most, and there’s a giant cushion on the bottom, and I have witnessed tiny children gleefully sliding down it, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  Every time, I climb to the top of the stairs and think I’ll be able to, but, nope, I’m inevitably forced to slink back down the stairs in shame.  I honestly don’t even know why I’m admitting this.  There’s just something about having to step out over a sheer drop that freaks me out, and I totally don’t trust my arms to actually hold me on the pole.

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There’s also a train room with a large model train track.  I gather that many people like trains, so this may be of interest.  I like miniature things, so I’m happy to look at the tiny buildings and people set up around the track, but I’m not that keen on actual trains.  I guess I have to ride insanely crowded trains that reek of B.O. and rancid burgers far too often in London for me to appreciate the nostalgia for the quaint age of train travel that exists in the US.  I will concede that there is a big difference between a packed commuter train and an old steam train with nicely upholstered seats and wooden trim.

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You may be wondering where William McKinley fits into all of this, as I’ve managed to write over a thousand words whilst barely mentioning him.  The truth is, there’s not actually all that much about McKinley in the museum.  The only part devoted to him is one large room full of display cases and a recreation of his parlour.  I can almost forgive this oversight because smack-dab in the middle of the parlour, animatronic William and Ida McKinley await you.  They only have about three different conversations programmed in, all of which you’ll hear more than once in the time it takes you to look at the displays in the room.  I don’t think this is really the place to get into politics, and the legacy of McKinley, but I know he’s not very well looked upon by a lot of people due to the Spanish-American war, and you know, the whole imperalism thing.  Though I’m no McKinley apologist, I tend to take a longer view of the situation, as I think imperialism was a long, probably inevitable road that has its roots in the Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine, but even I couldn’t help making some snide remarks to animatronic William when he started going on about wanting to avoid war and bloodshed (“But you must remember the Maine, Willy! You used it to help start a war!”).  Yes, I talk to animatronic presidents, even though he is not the type of animatronic that is interactive.  I have also been known to converse with Bruce the Talking Spruce, but that’s another story altogether.  I did try to warn William off from visiting the Pan-American Exposition, but I kind of think that’s what they expect you to do.

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Anyway, the non-talking artefacts in here are pretty good.  They include some Maine (the battleship, not the state) shaped commemorative objects, and various articles of McKinley clothing.  It’s nice to learn more about McKinley’s life, rather than just his politics, as I tend to favour the biographical side of presidential history.  I just wish there was a bit more of it here.  But all this only covers the top floor of the museum.  There is still a lower level to contend with.

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Fortunately, I can dispense with that fairly quickly.  The downstairs is aimed at children, though that didn’t stop me from playing with all the interactive science exhibits, as always.  They have some dinosaurs, including the one above, which moves when you least expect it (you will jump), and some geological stuff, and a collection of small animals to look at (living ones, not taxidermy).  This is the main thing that annoys me about the McKinley Museum; I feel like it’s trying to be all things to all people.  I could happily do without the dinosaurs in favour of more displays on presidential history, but I suppose to attract repeat visitors in the area, they have to have activities that appeal to families, and that’s where the dinosaurs come in.

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After all that, I’m going to give the McKinley Museum 4/5, because it does include my top museum criteria of historic recreated streets, wax figures, and the animatronic McKinleys.  I’m happy enough with the Canton history section, but I do wish they could find the focus to make it more of a McKinley orientated attraction.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a presidential museum should be mainly about said president.  However, for a smallish, local museum, they do what they’ve chosen to do well, and with no shortage of quirk, so despite my complaints, it will remain on my list of favourites.

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