The Henry Ford “Driving America”

Marilyn Zoidis

The Henry Ford

20900 Oakwood Boulevard Dearborn, Michigan 48124-5029 USA

Dearborn, Michigan, United States
2012 Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits

"Driving America" The Henry Ford

The Henry Ford is the place where visitors can discover their potential through America's history.  Its campus is the largest indoor-outdoor history complex in the United States, including Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, Benson Ford Research Center, IMAX Theatre, and Henry Ford Academy.  A National Historic Landmark, founded in 1929, it comprises over eighty acres of living history experiences and nine acres of museum exhibition and program space that offers a unique opportunity to explore America's past.  Building on the significant and expansive collections Henry Ford amassed during his lifetime, The Henry Ford has an unparalleled collection that documents the American experience.  Mindful of Henry Ford's belief that the most effective learning takes place by doing, the institution offers wide-ranging programs through exhibitions, demonstrations, dramatic presentations, and public and school offerings. The Henry Ford hosts more than 1.6 million visitors each year, including more than 250,000 schoolchildren.

Driving America at The Henry Ford

As the museum named for one of the world's great automobile magnates, The Henry Ford heavily considers exhibitions on the history and impact of the automobile. The museum first tackled this topic in 1987 with Automobile in American Life. That exhibition broke new ground by moving beyond a literal taxonomy of cars to include supporting artifacts, documents and photographs and give context for the vehicles.  Needless to say, our thinking about the automobile and its cultural and economic impact have changed since then.  Moreover, new technologies and approaches to exhibition design and presentation compelled The Henry Ford to embrace an innovative approach to this story and develop a new interpretative framework for its automotive collections.  We proudly opened Driving America in 2012. 

Driving America is an 85,000 square foot exhibition that includes more than 100 vehicles and 600 artifacts to support a range of ideas that explore the history and meaning of the automobile in everyday life. Twenty-one vehiclesmdash;some that had not been seen for twenty-five yearsmdash;were brought out of storage.  In addition, six new cars manufactured between 1973 and 2009 were acquired to bring contemporary stories forward. Curators also acquired a wide range of material culture to document exhibition themes.

To introduce new technology on the museum floor, we interspersed eighteen, 42-inch touch-screen interactive kiosks throughout Driving America. These kiosks feature a variety of tools and learning techniques to encourage visitors to explore The Henry Ford's rich collections and probe deeper into exhibit content. "Explore Our Collections" is a visually rich and intuitive interface that allows visitors to access thousands of records, many with interpretation, from our continually growing collections database. The database is also available online.  Twelve customized digital activities encourage visitor decision-making and build or clarify salient points within the exhibition.  "Expert Insights" connect visitors with curators and other experts who discuss exhibition themes and stories and link them to real-world situations.  Visitors can select and save information found on each kiosk for future reference by using a Smartphone or by emailing what has piqued their interest.  In addition to these kiosks, a ten-minute filmmdash;shown in a dedicated theatermdash;reinforces exhibit themes through historic and contemporary footage and interviews with technology and industry experts.  Beautifully photographed images of the vehicles presented in the exhibition appear on the interactive kiosks and are also featured in a lavishly-produced publication.

It is the ideas within Driving America, however, that truly set this automotive story apart. This critical presentation acknowledges that the automobile was not invented in America -- nor did Henry Ford invent it.  Rather, Driving America posits that by choosing to embrace the automobile rapidly and wholeheartedly, Americans transformed an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that changed the way we live.  In a unique approach, the exhibition shifts focus from an engineering or industry insider's perspective to the lens of users -- ordinary Americans who buy, drive, and ride in cars.  Visitors are encouraged to reflect on how the choices we have made as individuals, and enacted collectively through political or commercial decisions, transformed the car from a plaything for the wealthy to an essential tool of modern life.  The exhibition commemorates the impact of these decisions while acknowledging that they were not without consequences.

Developed by a cross-departmental exhibition team, interpretive text, objects and archival materials trace the automobile's impact on daily life.  While there were thinkers and doers who advanced the new technology, the choices of hundreds of thousands of individuals led to the dominance of the automobile in America.  To convey these ideas, the exhibition is organized to tell contextual stories.  A timeline of automotive history features cars from the 1865 Roper Steam Carriage to the 2002 Toyota Prius sedan.  Automotive content is conveyed through labels that provide contextual information - and technical specifications - about each vehicle.  Twenty areas cover diverse and sometimes unexpected topics, from hot rods and road trips to racing and road food as well as alternatives to cars.  Interpretive cases broaden the story by exploring cultural themes related to the vehicle and its era of production.  Objects were chosen for exhibition not only because they were historically significant, but also because they were memorable and meaningful to personal experiences.  Curators imaginatively selected materials to draw visitors attention and interest: service station restroom keys; a garage mechanic's name patch; a hole punch for bus transfer tickets; the medical kit used by the winner of the 1908 New York to Paris race; a Gideon's Bible from a motel drawer; a Model T key; an early cruise control device; pink, turquoise, and yellow dishes from the 1950s alongside an advertisement for three Chevys in the same colors; kitchen utensils from the "Vagabond" autocamping trips led by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. In keeping with Ford's philosophy, everyday objects can tell powerful stories.

Driving America presents connections between past and present and encourages visitors to examine links between what they see in Henry Ford Museum or on the Driving America website and their personal experiences. The exhibition tells a story of men, women and machines, of human interactions and our relationship with technology, and, ultimately, of choice and innovation. Driving America examines the decisions we've made to overcome past problems, preparing us to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.


Browse by year

Browse by category

Browse by country

View all