Sunday, July 15, 2012
Review II: Driving America at The Henry Ford
Labeled as the "World's Premier Automotive Exhibition," the Driving America exhibit at the Henry Ford comes with very high expectations. With an emphasis on users of the automobile rather than producers, this exhibit does depart from the norm of "place one car after another on the floor with little to guide them and let the viewer decide what, if anything, to learn." The exhibit is far more nuanced than what is found in the majority of automobile museums, and reflective of recent historical scholarship in the history of technology and American social and cultural history.
On several levels it succeeds in teaching the public, young and old, gear head and disinterested wife, about how everyday Americans lives were profoundly changed by this machine that changed the world. By using a number of immersive interactive kiosks, and a well-done short film shown in the Driving America theater, the museum visitor, during one afternoon, has the opportunity to learn about as much as one would be exposed to in a good introductory course on the automobile and American life. Further, it is more than appropriate that this exhibit is at the Henry Ford Museum, since automobility had such significant and important Michigan and Dearborn roots. With an extensive in-house automobile collection that includes numerous rare cars, including a Bugatti Royale and Tucker 48, and a repository of ephemeral materials second to none, there are plenty of artifacts to put on the floor and in display cases that contain excellent explanatory descriptions.
Upon walking into the exhibit, this reviewer's first impressions were striking. The light from several neon signs coupled with colors reflected from the automobiles immediately takes one into a Disney-like world. One section of the exhibit is chronological, and begins with walking shoes, horses, and stage coaches. But then the panels quickly move into turn of the century pioneer automobiles, including as one might predict, Henry Ford's Quadricycle. From that point onwards this section takes us predictably from one decade or era to another, finally ending with plug-in electric cars. Adjacent to this is a section on auto racing, which is a favorite among auto hobbyists and the young. The cars and colors are luscious, and the backdrops are artistically and thematically well done.
To write that Driving America is the end-all of automobile museum efforts, however, would be disingenuous, however. First, the exhibit suffers from a common shortcoming among those who put these car presentations together. Namely, there seems to be this need or urge to put all of one toys out on the table. Consequently, the exhibit ends up being choked with cars placed on every square foot of the floor, overwhelming the scene at the expensive of meaningful learning experiences. To be sure, the most historically significant cars are out there, including the 1924 Chrysler Touring Car and the Essex closed body design of the early 1920s. But some of the cars placed on the wings just clutter things up, and diffuse the main theme that should be the focus of the work. Secondly -- and I know that there is considerable debate on this point -- to isolate the cars behind barriers takes so much away from the potential learning experience. I know these cars are extremely valuable, but at the Audi Museum at Ingolsadt, Germany, for example, one can walk right up to the cars and even touch them -- and some of those cars, including several Rennwagens from the 1930s, are worth just as much as a Tucker 48, if not more.
A Coffin Nose Cord 812, 1937
Finally, much use is made of the interactive learning kiosks throughout the exhibit, and they can be great learning tools. Yet, I wonder where the "driving" comes into this exhibit. An interactive driving section -- using simulators or some other kind of device like that -- would take a static presentation and make it dynamic. After all, driving in America is about fun, exhilaration, and freedom, and one gets it by doing, not just watching.