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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Digitizing The Henry Ford’s Most Significant Artifacts

September 17, 2012 Archive Insight

Some followers of The Henry Ford’s blog may remember that back in January we told you about our 2012 project to digitize the most “significant” artifacts in our collections. We have been working furiously on getting these artifacts identified and digitized, and while we’re not finished yet, we’ve gotten a lot done, and wanted to share some interesting tidbits about our work thus far.

The basic assignment we set ourselves was to divide the collection into categories, and ask our curators to select the 25 most significant items at The Henry Ford in each of the categories. Though there are many ways one can group items in our collections, for the purposes of this exercise, we chose these groupings:

  • Home and Community Life
  • Information Technology and Communications
  • Transportation
  • American Democracy and Civil Rights
  • Agriculture and the Environment
  • America’s Industrial Revolution
  • Henry Ford (Since Henry Ford is such a significant personage around here, we decided he gets 50 objects instead of 25.)
  • The curators established lists for each grouping, which was no easy task. Criteria of national significance, uniqueness to our institution, and resonance to museum visitors helped guide selections, but there was still a laborious and sometimes painful process of culling to get down to 25 (or 26 or 27 — a few extras snuck through!) objects in each category.

    We also considered the issue of overlap. In the end, less than 10 objects ended up on lists in multiple categories, and where they did, the rationale was very clear. These include the limousine in which John F. Kennedy was shot (which relates to both Transportation and American Democracy and Civil Rights), the Fordson tractor Henry Ford gave to Luther Burbank (which relates to both Henry Ford and Agriculture and the Environment), and a Westinghouse steam engine, pictured below (which relates to both Henry Ford and America’s Industrial Revolution). Most of the overlaps involve Henry Ford, which is not surprising when you consider the origins of this institution.

    Westinghouse Portable Steam Engine No. 345, made circa 1881, used by Henry Ford

    Another really interesting thing about the lists is that though these are some of our most significant artifacts, not all of the items are currently on public display. The majority of the objects the curators selected are indeed located in the Henry Ford Museum: from George Washington Carver’s microscope, located in our Agriculture exhibit; to the Noyes piano box buggy located in Driving America; to the Jazz Bowl, located in Your Place in Time. A few objects are located in Greenfield Village, including the Edison electric pen, which you can view in Menlo Park Laboratory; and Firestone Barn, which is a building, a working barn, and a significant artifact, all rolled into one!

    Firestone Barn. Photograph by Michelle Andonian

    A number of objects selected live in our archival collections, which may be viewed via a visit to the Benson Ford Research Center. These include two-dimensional objects such as a photograph of the first Highland Park Ford assembly line and Ford Motor Company’s first checkbook.

    Ford Motor Company Checkbook, 1903

    Other objects are just too fragile to be on permanent display or don’t have a spot in our current exhibits, so The Henry Ford’s collections site is the only place you’ll be able to view them. These include an embroidery sampler from 1799, a gold bugle, and a Moog synthesizer.

    Moog Synthesizer, 1964-1965

    One object that made the list, the kinetoscope that Thomas Edison invented to play moving images, is not even in Dearborn at the moment—it is on display at the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida. If you have upcoming travel plans that include Epcot, stop by the American Heritage Gallery and say hi to one of our most significant objects!

    Edison Kinetoscope with Kinetophone, 1912-1913

    So what’s next for this project? Well, we still have about 20 percent of these significant objects left to digitize and make available online, and there are a number for which curators are still writing brief descriptions. Once all the objects are online and well-described, we’ll create sets for each category, so you can browse these gems from our collection by the topic they relate to. Watch for a future blog post when this is complete! 

    Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, would definitely include on her personal list of significant collections objects everything from the Rosa Parks bus to the Monkey Bar.

    #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Ellice Engdahl, digitization, digital collections

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