The Museum of American Heritage is a delightful little gem near downtown Palo Alto. It’s a beautiful historic home that’s been converted to a museum inside and a peaceful garden outside. There’s also a classroom space out back where they host special events. The volunteer docents were cheerful, kind, and knowledgeable, but didn’t hover as we explored the museum at our own pace. It’s one of those places that’s been around for a while, but even as a local, we somehow never knew about it. Now that we do, we will definitely be back!
What do they have there?
The museum is dedicated to showcasing innovations that shaped America from approximately 1750 to 1950. It reminds me somewhat of History San Jose, but on a more intimate scale. Here, each room of the house has a different focus. The kitchen is like a time capsule of early 1900s American home life. (Did you know built-in kitchen cabinets are a recent invention?) Other rooms showcase classic woodworking tools, a home office/study with a very cool old typewriter, and an old general store that reminds me of The Waltons. As a designer, it was especially cool to see the old packages on the shelves and notice which brands/logos have evolved and which have remained nearly unchanged for a half-century or more.
While most of the museum is about looking, some parts are hands-on. Some of the woodworking tools are mounted on the wall so you can turn the cranks and see how they work. Next to the general store room is a room filled with Erector Sets and other building toys meant to be operated. There is also a kids’ hands-on play room near the study with a train table, children’s books, and a typewriter that’s meant to be used. Have your kids ever had a chance to see a manual typewriter?
Out back, there’s a print shop with several beautiful older printing presses which are demonstrated about once a week when the volunteer is there to run them. There’s also a garage with a beautifully restored Model T Ford from 1915! The gardens outside have been restored to be historically accurate and include a 1942 “Victory Garden,” medicinal herbs, water-wise Mediterranean plants and gorgeous redwood trees. It would be worth going back in blooming season (rather than February) to see more of the gardens.
In addition to the permanent exhibits, a large front room houses rotating exhibits about American innovation. When we went, it was a fascinating display of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse’s work on electricity and their mutual rivalry along the way. This exhibit is gone now, but you can check out their website for the next topic. There’s always something new coming!
Beyond the museum itself, there’s a classroom space out back that hosts special events for children and adults, both on weekends and for field trips during the week. When we were there, they were having a big Lego building fest. Examples of other offerings include crystal radio building classes, science enrichment workshops, and public lectures. (Note: While the museum is free, some of these events are not.) Check out their events page for upcoming special events, annual events, and past examples.
Overall, this museum is not targeted at young children. I’d say 4th graders through adults would get the most out of this trip.
The Museum of American Heritage is in Palo Alto at 351 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto, California 94301, just a couple blocks over from the main downtown space on University Avenue. (Here’s the map.) It’s about 20-30 minutes north of San Jose.
It’s directly across the street from Heritage Park and the not-yet-open Palo Alto History Museum.
It’s mostly on-street parking unless you’re there for a special event, in which case there are some spaces available behind the house. The on-street parking is free (but of course watch out for permits or time restrictions, since this is a neighborhood) but has no disabled slots. It would have been impossible to use the wheelchair lift in the place we ended up parking on the street. If you need disabled parking, the museum’s website says to call ahead (1-650-321-1004) to arrange for a spot in the back lot.
If you’re nearby, it would be easy to walk or bike here. If you need public transit, it looks like about a 12-minute walk from the CalTrain station or very close to a Route 35 bus stop. Keep in mind that the museum is usually only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 to 4, so time your trip accordingly.
The museum is indoors, so it would be fun any day. Of course if you’re looking at the gardens, it would help to pick a non-rainy day, probably in spring or early summer to see the most blooms. (I’m the furthest thing from a plant expert, so call the museum to ask what’s blooming if you’re specifically interested in the gardens.)
There’s no admission fee for the museum (as of 2018), but a $5 donation per visitor is appreciated. School field trips or group tours have a small fee ($3-5) per person. You can also join as a member, which provides a large part of the museum’s funding and gets you special access to their events and newsletter.
Length of Time
Visiting the museum will take you about 1-3 hours, depending on how much detail you read in each exhibit and how long you want to spend in the gardens.
The museum is entirely wheelchair accessible! This was a major surprise for a century-old home. I give big kudos to the museum operators for making this happen so naturally. There are clear signs about where to enter. (The wheelchair entrance is through the kitchen door from the side porch, which has a ramp, rather than from the front door, which has big stairs.) Inside the house, the whole museum is on the main floor and all the displays are wide enough for a wheelchair to navigate without issue. The print shop, garage, classroom, and gardens are also accessible. How delightful!
Vision & Hearing
Not surprisingly for a historical museum, many things are don’t-look-touch and some are protected under plexiglass. Even the hands-on parts are mostly about turning a crank or lever or switch and seeing what happens. For this reason, I think this museum experience would be rather limited for someone with a vision impairment. The lectures and workshops might be quite engaging, however.
For all the same reasons, it’s easy for someone with a hearing impairment to enjoy the museum. We found it to be pleasantly quiet (think of it as the exact opposite of something like The Tech) so there wasn’t even much background noise to filter out. I don’t know how this would work for the lectures or workshops; you’d have to contact the museum to find out.
This is a very calm museum, as you might expect from a century-old home. Its displays are visually interesting without being busy. It’s neat without being sterile. What stood out the most to me was actually the sensory simplicity of the displays. Whereas most museums these days seem to be trying to one-up each other on the flashy interactive big-screen displays, the information here is all done with nice little posters and plaques. Not only does this help with costs (since it’s a donation-based, volunteer-run museum), but I actually found it much easier to read the information that way. I really enjoyed getting to read the information at my own pace without bright flickering screens distracting at every turn!
There is no gift shop or snack shack here, and no food or drink allowed inside the galleries (true of most museums), so plan to have lunch beforehand. The park across the street would be a great picnic spot in nice weather, or there are several restaurants nearby.
Would we go back?
You bet! We chose to visit this time because it was the last weekend of the Thomas Edison display, but we look forward to going back for future exhibits and maybe some of the special events. It will also be interesting to see the gardens at a different time of year. If you have a couple hours to spend on something interesting, the Museum of American Heritage will make you smile!