Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Historical Graffiti

November 5, 2014

As a new member of the Historical Resources Department at The Henry Ford, my first couple of months have been a whirlwind. Not only am I responsible for learning the daily workflow routine, but I also have to begin the process of taking in the massive and amazing collection that exists here at The Henry Ford. My initial impression is that you could spend multiple lifetimes working here and still not discover all the stories the collection has to offer. Discovery is what makes my work exciting. What makes my work even more exciting is the ability to share those discoveries with other people. It is in the spirit of sharing these stories, the breadth of our collection, and in the stories themselves that make The Henry Ford a prime location for the setting of a TV show like Innovation Nation. All of these stories need to be shared in order to inspire.

As a part of my job in the Historical Resources Department, I work on Special Access events. These events require someone from Historical Resources to be present anytime we grant access to a person or group to go behind the scenes. Our presence is to ensure the safety of the historical resources in our collection. To sum it up, we observe and protect. In the first couple weeks on the job, I learned all about Innovation Nation and our Special Access protocol. In mid-September, when the Innovation Nation production team was here to film again, I finally got the chance to learn first-hand how to handle Special Access situations.

Over the course of some of the days, as I was shadowing my superiors, my job evolved to a more involved role with the production of the TV show. Although I was there to protect the historical resources, I often found myself being the stand-in for the host, Mo Rocca, as we moved from location to location. As a stand-in, I would literally stand in the spot Mo was going to do his hosting from while they adjusted the lighting and cameras. When they were ready film, I would step out and Mo would step in. I believe the main reason for my use as a stand-in is that Mo and I have the relatively same body frame and height.

Host, Mo Rocca, before filming.

Special Access Member/Stand-In, Ryan Jelso, mid-arm movement.

One of the shoots took place around the 1928 Ford Tri-Motor, the plane that Admiral Richard E. Byrd made famous when he used it for the first airplane flight over the South Pole in 1929. In general, these all-metal Tri-Motors were some of the first successful commercial airplanes. As a gift from Edsel Ford to Admiral Byrd for his 1929 expedition, it makes sense that this plane would eventually find its way into The Henry Ford’s collection. During my time as a stand-in, I had the chance to examine the beauty of the plane in an up close and personal way. As I found out, hundreds of other people had already had the same opportunity.

The Byrd Tri-Motor has been a part of the collection for a long time. Its presence in the museum probably extends back to the late 1930’s to early 1940’s. Over that time, the plane has been located in many different areas on the floor, besides its nearly central location today. Placement in those different areas has not allowed the plane to always be under a watchful eye. As a result, the plane is probably the most vandalized artifact in our collection. The names of hundreds of people can be found written across the metal. I noticed only a select few etched into the patina of the propellers while doing my stand-in duties.

Historical graffiti on the Ford Tri-Motor propeller.

After later examination, I found that most of the names that were tagged with years occurred in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The year tags declined into the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Year tags don’t exist after those early 1970’s dates at all. So what do we have here? I would call it historical graffiti. While it is clearly vandalism and vandalism is strictly prohibited, it has existed for so long that we could now examine it as relevant. It documents the stories and memories of those who have visited The Henry Ford in the past. That’s an important realization when you want to think about the educational impact the museum has had over its long history.

It’s only fitting that I came to this realization while helping to create a modern educational impact of The Henry Ford. When you see the Byrd Tri-Motor on Innovation Nation, realize that it is has been a staple in spurring interest in learning for over 75 years and that the plane itself is an archive of that. So if you know Wilson who visited in 1942, or Margaret who visited in 1952, or Pete who visited in 1958, let them know that the story of their educational experience lives on and has been shared.

I look forward to the next time I can work Special Access on Innovation Nation because I think that it’s such an inspirational idea. Maybe I can grab my own grey suit, along with a pair of glasses, and we can elevate my role as “Stand-In” to “Mo’s Back-up”. Sure, I will have to refine my hosting skills, but until then, I will be waiting in the wings.

Literally, when they come to film the show, I will be waiting by the airplane wings. Ensuring their safety.

Ryan Jelso is Research Support Specialist at The Henry Ford.

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