Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Collecting in the 2010s

October 20, 2019 THF 90

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As the 21st century began, The Henry Ford’s automotive exhibit, Automobile in American Life, was into its second decade of life, and needed a refresh. In a major change that affected 80,000 square feet on the Museum floor, Driving America roared into life in January of 2012. 

Not only were the themes and artifacts included in the exhibit completely rethought, but digital technologies were integrated from the beginning to fuel touchscreen kiosks containing activities, curator interviews, and tens of thousands of digitized artifacts from The Henry Ford’s collections—including a substantial new set of glamour shots for each vehicle in the exhibit. This first big experiment with digitized collections within an exhibit is forming the basis for the use of interactive technologies in upcoming exhibits. 

Technology Accelerates at the Rouge
In late 2014, Ford Motor Company began producing the first mass-produced truck in its class featuring a high-strength, military-grade, aluminum-alloy body and bed after having completely redesigned its F-150 assembly line at the Ford Rouge plant. This posed a challenge for the Ford Rouge Factory Tour—the manufacturing story had completely changed. An overhaul of the entire experience involved updated experiences in both theaters, particularly in the Manufacturing Innovation Theater, offering a multisensory, multidirectional show. An interactive kiosk, similar to those installed in Driving America, was also installed to allow visitors to access The Henry Ford’s digital collections with the touch of a finger. 

Village Growth
While the Village has not yet seen any more changes as substantial as those that occurred in the early part of the 21st century, the period since 2010 has brought a couple of notable upgrades to the working districts of Greenfield Village. One was the 2014 addition of a 50-foot-tall coaling tower, based on historic designs and used to store and load coal into the historic operating locomotives of Greenfield Village. 

The other recent project was the physical expansion of the Pottery Shop in 2013, a project sparked by the need to replace a salt kiln that was nearly three decades old. The kiln room was rebuilt and slightly expanded, and by reconfiguring the layout, a spacious area for the decorators to work was also created. 

Anniversaries and Remembrances
Despite the growth in digital experiences, the power of physical artifacts is still undeniable. Many significant anniversaries related to the objects and stories of The Henry Ford have been observed with events within Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in recent years. 

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One of the largest and most notable was the Day of Courage, celebrated with an all-day event on February 4, 2013. Historians, musicians, students, and Museum guests remembered the life of Rosa Parks on her 100th birthday. In November 2013, lectures by newscaster Dan Rather and former Secret Service agent Clint Hill, as well as an opportunity to visit the fateful limousine, formed a remembrance of President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. April 2015, the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was marked with a lecture by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the first removal of the Lincoln chair from its display case in decades. 

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Innovation Focus

Our collecting continues to focus on resourcefulness, innovation, and ingenuity—and both new and old artifacts, along with their stories, are featured in new ways. In particular, as digital technologies became ubiquitous, The Henry Ford began developing new strategies to accomplish its mission to share, teach, and inspire, particularly focused on the “innovation” portion of the mission statement. 

The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™ represents the core assets of The Henry Ford that illustrate the process and context of innovation. It refers to artifacts and documents in the collection that provide an unprecedented window into America’s traditions of resourcefulness, innovation, and ingenuity. It is the key to understanding how our entire modern world was created. 

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Related stories of artifacts and innovation are featured on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, a weekly educational TV program produced by Litton Entertainment and hosted by Mo Rocca, which has aired since Fall 2014. Innovation is also brought in through events such as Maker Faire Detroit, hosted annually at The Henry Ford since 2010. 

Active Collecting
Though the world has become increasingly digital, The Henry Ford continues to collect hundreds or even thousands of physical artifacts each year. In the second decade of the 21st century, this has included material related to significant artifacts we already hold (John F. Kennedy material, to add additional context to the Kennedy Limousine; and the George Devol collection, which relates to the world’s first industrial robot), design (an Eames-designed, IBM-used kiosk and hundreds of examples of 20th century soap packaging), and auto racing (photographic collections from John Clark and Ray Masser and dozens of tether cars or “spindizzies”). 

Major recent acquisitions include the John Margolies Roadside America collection, the Bachmann studio collection of American glass, the Roddis clothing collection, and Mathematica, a circa 1960 exhibit designed by Charles and Ray Eames. 

The Collections Go Digital
The Henry Ford began scaling up its collections digitization effort in 2010, hiring new staff with new skills to advance this technology-intensive effort that involves conservation, cataloging, photography, and scanning. Images of tens of thousands of artifacts are now freely available online, from our Digital Collections, and provide the basis for additional layers of supporting content, helping the public to understand artifacts in the context of their original time and place as well as the context of today. 

Digitization efforts include artifacts on display within the Museum or Village, new acquisitions, and “hidden” items currently in storage. In 2013–15, for example, more than 1,200 communications-related artifacts in storage, including many significant rediscovered treasures, were digitized through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). 

From Digital Artifacts to Digital Stories
While more than 20,000 artifacts are on public exhibit in Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, the Benson Ford Research Center, and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, The Henry Ford’s collection holds many more—about 250,000 objects and millions more photographs and documents within our archives. Institutional commitment to the digitization of The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™ is making these collections, and the ideas behind them, more accessible to more people in more ways than ever. 

Acquisitions Made to the Collections - 2010s 

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Apple 1 Computer, 1976
In 2013, The Henry Ford acquired an Apple 1 computer—one of the first fifty ever made, and fully operational. This groundbreaking device documents an important “first,” as one of the earliest desktop computers to be sold with a pre-assembled motherboard (although users had to purchase a separate keyboard, monitor, and power source). The Apple 1 is also the beginning of something in the sense that it led to the founding of one of today’s most successful computer companies in the world. This artifact demonstrates The Henry Ford’s commitment to collecting the hardware, software, and the ephemeral culture that powers the digital age. You can see a video describing the Apple 1 acquisition and the process of booting it up here. - Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology 

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Throstle Spinning Frame
This rare spinning frame was part of a landmark acquisition, perhaps the largest since Henry Ford’s time--nine truckloads of textile history-related objects and archival materials! Spinning frames like this circa 1835 example--likely the earliest surviving American industrial textile machine--helped spin the large quantities of thread that growing industrial weaving operations needed in the early and mid-19th century. In 2016, the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts closed its doors and began to transfer their collections to other organizations. The Henry Ford was among them--able to provide a home for many thousands of objects dating from the 18th to 21st centuries: textile machinery and tools, clothing and domestic textiles, and hundreds of sample books of printed fabrics from several major New England companies. This rich collection from ATHM tells the story of a key player in America’s Industrial Revolution--the textile industry. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life 

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La-Z-Boy Reclina Rocker
La-Z-Boy is a story of technological innovation, marketing, and sales savvy. Two cousins created the first chair in the late 1920s but didn’t gain acclaim until the 1960s with the Reclina Rocker, which combined a built-in ottoman with a rocking feature. Multi-faceted promotional strategies, including celebrity endorsements, caught the eye of middle-class Americans, who eagerly bought the chair for their homes. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts 

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2016 General Motors First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle
Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce accidents, ease traffic, reduce pollution, and improve mobility for people unable to drive themselves. Assuming we can solve the remaining technical, legal, and psychological challenges, autonomous cars promise to bring the most significant change in our relationship with the automobile since the Model T itself. This experimental vehicle represents General Motors' first major step toward our autonomous future -- and The Henry Ford's first major step to document the journey. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation 

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Ruth Adler Schnee Textiles
Designer Ruth Adler Schnee's modern textiles are bold, colorful, and pushed the mid-20th century modern design movement forward. She drew inspiration from the world around her, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. The Henry Ford's acquisition of her textiles in 2000 and in 2018 speak to her continued relevance to our collection-- as a modern design pioneer, a female entrepreneur, and a Jewish immigrant. - Katherine White, Associate Curator 

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Robert Propst Papers
Noted industrial designer Robert L. Propst is best known for his work with Herman Miller and for designing the “Action Office,” an office furnishing system which became the basis for the modern cubicle. Propst’s papers cover the design and business aspects of “Action Office” as well many of his other projects such as a residential housing system, hotel housekeeping carts, hospital furniture, an industrial timber harvester, and even children's playground equipment. - Brian Wilson, Sr. Manager, Archives and Library

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Champion Egg Case Machine, 1900-1925
This artifact furthers The Henry Ford's mission in several ways –it’s the product of an innovator. James Ashley first patented a box-making machine in 1892. Resourceful farm families with eggs to sell built boxes with this machine, marked the contents "farm fresh," and shipped their product to meet the growing demand of chicken-less urban consumers. The machine created a standardized box which held 12 flats (six on each side). Each flat held 30 eggs for a total of 360 eggs (30 dozen) in one box. Consumers today eat eggs transported to market on flats in boxes similar to the ones this machine was designed to build. Ashley's egg-case maker helps document the long history of farm-market exchange that responded to wary consumers' concerns over the freshness of the agricultural product. - Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment 

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