Driving America: A Museum Celebrates Our Cars’ Pasts and Futures

Most of the time when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visits Detroit it has something to do with pointing out that Washington’s investment in the automotive industry has paid off handsomely. Or, to promote inter-city high-speed rail or more local forms of light rail.

This past week LaHood came to nearby Dearborn, Mich. to celebrate the automotive industry and what it’s meant to Americans over the past hundred-plus years. He, along with William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of his great-grandfather’s company, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and some 600 guests (who paid $200 apiece for the privilege) attended the gala opening of a reinterpretation of the role of automobiles in our lives.

Why is that important?

There are about a quarter-billion cars around the country today. That’s almost one for each of us -“ including our youngest, and oldest, residents.

While it seems sometimes that most of them are in front of you and going about 10 miles under the speed limit with their left turn indicators flashing continuously, that’s only because you want to get from where you were to where you want to be -“ and for some reason you’re late.

In reality, most of those other cars are late as well, or lost or on their way to school or a soccer game -“ or parked somewhere.

Whatever they’re doing, wherever they are, cars, and their owners, have stories to tell.

That brings us to a storehouse of cars, and their stories.

The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, are collectively known as TheHenryFord -“ with the Museum built more than 70 years ago and the Village accumulated over time as Mr. Ford (everyone called him that and knew which “Mr. Ford” they were talking about) gathered homes of the famous and other historic buildings from their original locations across the country and placed them in one convenient spot in Dearborn.

The Museum featured collections of things that represented the way life was lived in America from early pioneer days until relatively recently. Because it was Mr. Ford who built it, there were a lot of cars in one area of the huge building with a bunch of them all lined up in what was called a ‘timeline’ -“ except that the timeline extended the wrong way. It started with 21st century cars.

Patricia Mooradian TheHenryFord CEO

Now, with a major revamp of the focus of the collection, a new exhibit called Driving America has emerged. Museum president Patricia Mooradian calls it a “one of a kind automotive experience.” She says that its 80,000 square feet “includes 130 vehicles and more than 60 cases of artifacts. There is no automotive exhibition like this anywhere in the world. It looks at the impact of cars on our culture through the eyes of the user.”

Why is our relationship to our cars so important? Why does the Museum feel it’s so important to spend a lot of money on completely revamping its display to reverse the lens through which it’s viewed from hard-core enthusiast to a much broader audience?

“It tells the story of us,” explains Mooradian. “Us as consumers, us as drivers as well as auto enthusiasts. It focuses on the enormous influence the automobile has had on American culture -“ from the automotive innovations that have changed our lives to the everyday choices that we all make.”

“The previous version of the exhibit was backwards,” says senior curator Tom Veritek. “Now the first thing you see is the first motorized vehicle built, an 1865 Roper steam carriage.” The end of the timeline, at the moment anyway, is a 2002 Toyota Prius. In between is a vehicular montage ranging from Mr. Ford’s first venture into motorized vehicles, the 1898 Quadricycle to a massive 1924 Chrysler touring car, a WWII Jeep, a post-war 1949 Ford sedan and a 1978 Dodge Omni. Each vehicle is representative of a significant change in the industry -“ design (yes, tail fins are there), power (steam, electricity, gasoline and electricity again), size (small, bigger, land yachts and a return to sanity) or safety features.

“Believe it or not,” says another curator standing nearby, “the Omni was the hardest one to find. They, well, I hate to say it, but they just didn’t last. We had initially borrowed one that was in a private collection but we found a guy in upstate New York who had an Omni museum of all things and he sold us this one.”

Some of the buttons on an interactive touchscreen.

That’s just one story. Veritek says. Many of the other stories weren’t being told in previous iterations of the Museum’s vehicle collection -“ not surprising, considering the Museum has some 26 million objects and documents, most inaccessible to the public. “Now we have 18 42-inch interactive displays throughout the exhibit. They are multi-touch screens, not unlike a smartphone, developed by a company called Cortina Productions that’s based in Virginia.”

The interactive displays are like having all of the various curators in the Museum giving you a personal tour and providing as much, or as little, information as you want to absorb. “There’s a mapping activity called Rivers, Rails and Roads to see everything from foot trails to railroads to highways and how they evolved to link the country together. You use ‘pre-cars’ canoes, horses, stagecoaches to get around. There are about a dozen of these games.”

For even deeper dives visitors have the option to explore that vast collection of the museum that is not currently on display. Veritek explains, “The Museum has undertaken the task over the past couple of years to digitize what we have. That can mean everything from taking photographs of objects, scanning documents, digitizing our movies, that sort of thing.”

Mr. Ford was an early fan of movies -“ which for him meant home movies, professionally shot and edited. So visitors can see movies of Mr. Ford camping with his buddies Tom Edison, and Harvey Firestone along with a variety of U.S. Presidents.

The hardest to find car for the exhibit – a Dodge Omni.

“You can support your own experience with more detail,” Veritek continues. “You can do searches by topic or keyword. Another onscreen button is called ‘Expert Insight.’ It’s interviews with automotive writers, other experts, even Bill Gates. The experts are different, depending on which touchscreen you’re using.”

Each of the screens contains a glossary of automotive terms “so if you needed to know what horsepower actually was, or if there’s a highlighted word anywhere, you just touch it and a box pops up to explain it for you.”

Veritek touches another location on the screen called a vehicle viewer. Up pops a photo and he sweeps his fingers apart to grow the image, just as he would on a smartphone or tablet computer. “There’s a description of the vehicle, different viewpoints, all in high resolution. There are a lot more vehicles in this device than we have room for on the floor,” he laughs.

The idea behind the interactive touchscreens, says Mooradian, “is to give visitors greater context to what they see in front of them. The really neat thing about it is that a visitor will be able, in effect, to take their own collection home with them.”

The new timeline starts with the beginning of motorized vehicles.

Either by collecting information via a QR code read by their smartphone or by using a Museum-supplied customized Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) card, visitors register their e-mail address and then, says Mooradian, “they can collect what is interesting to them throughout the exhibition and it’ll be in an e-mail message when they get home.” In effect, a series of bookmarks is imbedded in the card and then transferred to the e-mail message. When the visitor pulls up the e-mail and clicks on the bookmarks they are linked to the same information that they saw at the Museum.

President Barack Obama was in nearby Ann Arbor last week speaking at the University of Michigan. Referring to actions he and his administration took to help keep The Henry Ford Museum supplied with new vehicles and new stories over the decades to come, he pointed out, “On the day I took office the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse. And some politicians were willing to let it just die. We said no. We believe in the workers of this state. I believe in American ingenuity. We placed our bets on the American auto industry, and today, the American auto industry is back. Jobs are coming back -“ 160,000 jobs.”

The video clip of those remarks may be available soon on an 18-inch touchscreen at the Museum.