The woman greeting us at the door of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, during a recent visit reminded us that the museum closed some sections of its massive automobile exhibit as it begins a major makeover scheduled to continue throughout this year.
Considering that some of the newest vehicles in the The Automobile in American Life exhibit include a 1983 Honda Accord and a 1981 Ford Escort, you could say the exhibit is a bit dated.
However, I remember when the display represented an innovative step forward for the museum, and interpretive installations in general, during the 1980s.
The Henry Ford originally displayed its collection of over 200 vintage cars pretty much parked fender-to-fender in seemingly endless rows.
Some people objected when museum officials suggested reducing the number of cars displayed and renovating the exhibit by arranging it thematically with other artifacts to represent the impact of automobiles on American culture throughout the 20th century. Many wondered if displaying fewer cars and departing from the traditional way of displaying them would have met the approval of Henry Ford himself had he still been alive.
I remember attending the unveiling of the then-new exhibit at a preview before its official November 1987 opening.
The exhibit covered 65,000 square feet (about a quarter of the museum's total main floor) and cost over $6 million, according to Wayne State University professor Charles K. Hyde in a review for the January 1989 issue of the Technology and Culture journal.
It featured about 100 automobiles and a variety of other vehicles, displaying them chronologically from newest to oldest along winding and elevated paths resembling highways.
Some of the bigger objects the museum acquired for the exhibit particularly wowed me when I first saw them. Things like a vintage McDonald's neon sign, a 1946-vintage diner car, a 1960s-era Holiday Inn motel room, a 1930s tourist cabin, and an old Texaco gas station grouped with the vehicles gave you the feeling of stepping back into time to go on a great road trip and checking out some cool retro stops along the way.
Joseph J. Corn of Stanford University mentioned those big artifacts in his review of the exhibit in the July 1989 Organization of American Historians journal, saying they helped demonstrate the automobile's impact on roadside America and engaged museum visitors by drawing them in with more familiar sights to lead to smaller, older, and less familiar artifacts placed further back into the exhibit.
Hyde criticized the reliance on celebratory images, as well as the exhibit's heavy emphasis on the manufacturers' point of view to the exclusion of the experience of consumers and auto workers. Corn thought it put too much emphasis on big technological breakthroughs, while ignoring many incremental changes that cumulatively led to fundamental change for the industry and our culture over time.
Hyde and Corn both saw the exhibit as a major breakthrough for interpretive exhibits using a variety of media in visually exciting ways and far more engaging for visitors than the traditional, static artifact arrangements.
Now the museum is ready to makeover the exhibit once again, promising to keep visitors' old favorites while adding new items and interactive elements, according to a brochure we got from the woman at the museum entrance during our latest visit.
Workers already closed and started dismantling some sections of the exhibit, tagging artifacts for moving or storage during our visit. Work also continues on identifying and repairing some general problems like leaky roofs and resulting water damage.
While I've always loved the current exhibit, it should be exciting to see how museum officials update it for 21st century visitors as they head towards completing the upgrade in early 2012.
Here are a couple of links to photo posts I've done about specific objects in the museum's Automobile in American Life exhibit-one about Lamy's diner and one about the vintage McDonald's sign and its move from its original location in Madison Heights, Michigan.
Curious about how Henry Ford amassed such a large collection of cars and other historic objects? Check out Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and His Museum by Ford R. Bryan and Sarah Evans.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved