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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Hubcap Tales: Behind the Scenes of Digitizing Our Collections

March 8, 2012 Archive Insight

If you’re a regular reader of The Henry Ford’s blog, you might have noticed several recent blog posts about The Henry Ford’s ongoing effort to digitize its collection – from a special project to photograph 120 of the collection’s vehicles to the rapid capture of 2D archival materials.

Capturing the 3D collection in electronic format has its own joys and pitfalls. The three-dimensional objects have a (sometimes substantial!) weight and heft to them, they are in various states of fragility, they are on exhibit or well-packed in storage, and in some cases, they may have particular complications in handling due to their age or the materials from which they are made.

Take, for example, our hubcap collection.

“Hubcaps?” you might ask. “Why hubcaps?”

Well, The Henry Ford has collected hundreds of hubcaps. Matt Anderson, our Curator of Transportation, explains their importance this way:

“The hubcap’s evolution mirrors that of the car itself. What began as a purely practical device grew into a stylish form of expression. Manufacturers mark hubcaps with logos and use different designs to complement a vehicle’s overall form, from elegant wire to sporty magnesium alloy. Some owners install custom caps, further personalizing their vehicles.”

In short, there is more to a hubcap than meets the eye, which is why they found their way into our digitization process recently.

The first step in digitization is locating and retrieving the object(s) we want to digitize, which are usually either in on- or off-site storage or on exhibit somewhere on the premises and can only be retrieved by staff members specially trained to handle the objects.



Just a small selection of our hubcaps on display in the Driving America exhibit.


Once retrieved, objects need varying levels of conservation. This can involve something as simple as cleaning, or much more involved procedures to restore the stability of an object. Here, conservation specialist Marlene Gray examines and treats boxes and boxes of hubcaps.


Conservation in action!


Once they are all clean and shiny, the hubcaps are carefully moved over to our photography studio, where they get the glamour treatment. In the photo below, Conservation Specialist Sarah Kollar and our photographer Rudy Ruzicska pick out the next hubcap to be photographed, using the camera set-up behind and just to the right of Rudy in the below photograph.


Many, many hubcaps wait their turn for their close-up.


Some complex objects get many photographs from multiple angles, while some, like the humble hubcap, get one good chance to shine (literally).

Once the photograph(s) have been taken, the digital images have to be named, appropriately sized, and moved into our collections database, which looks a lot like Sarah sitting at a computer with spreadsheets nearby.


This is what a lot of the digitization process looks like, actually; it may not be glamorous, but we find it quite worthwhile!


From there, we create a description of the object within our collections database. Collections documentation specialists within our registrar's office enter the material the hubcap is made of, noting its color, dimensions, any inscriptions it might have and any other information about it or its origin that they can glean, which often entails some research and consultation with curators.

Meanwhile, other collections documentation specialists and curators write brief narratives for many of the objects, explaining how and when they were used and their historical significance. When all this information is entered into our collections database, it looks like this:

Once the object is described within our collections system, and once it has at least one good photograph, it is ready for prime time!

Right now, each digitized object goes to two different digital homes: our collections website and our digitized collection on the interactive touchscreen kiosks within the Driving America exhibit.

You can save favorite items into sets and share them back and forth across both venues, adding new favorites as you go!

What hubcaps (or other collections items) will make it into your sets?

Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, finds hundreds of hubcaps surprisingly compelling.

collections care, conservation, photography, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Ellice Engdahl, digitization

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