Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

“Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” — Insights from Our Own Marvel Fans

November 17, 2020 Think THF
Gray wall with images and text in larger building; hanging figure of superhero in right foreground
Entrance to the exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

We curators love to show off our expertise in these blog posts—with knowledge we’ve gained from books and articles and stories we’ve gleaned from our own collections. But one thing we often forget to do is to invite opinions from other staff members. As an avid comic book fan, I have written several blog posts about comic books—about my own favorites, the censorship wars of the 1950s, and how you can tell the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes.

When it came time to reflect upon the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition currently at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I suggested we talk to other Marvel fans who work here. They could be like ambassadors, I proposed, both for Marvel devotees and for those who are new to the Marvel Universe. What did these fans on our staff like best? What do they think other people shouldn’t miss? Below are their responses to questions I posed to them. And don’t be surprised if you find a few opinions of my own in here. Sorry. I couldn’t help it!

Mannequin in blue and red unitard hanging upside down in spotlight with silhouettes of people in windows on either side
Spider-Man photo op.

First, meet our panel.

Kate Morland is our Exhibits Manager. Although she loved Archie comics as a kid, it was the movies that first interested her in the Marvel franchise. The Spider-Man movie from 2002 was her first Marvel movie. She loved Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. As a teenager herself at the time, she found Spider-Man relatable as a peer. Over the years, she’s broadened her interest through the different movies. Recently, she’s grown to love Guardians of the Galaxy, as she’s come to appreciate humor in tense situations. For that reason, Goose, the Flerken/cat, is another favorite!

Oversized, illuminated comic book cover with images and text; framed text and images on walls on either side
X-Men section of the exhibition.

Tim Johnson is our long-time Program Leader in Talent & Culture. He got “hooked” on Marvel through the comic books. His best friend is a massive comic book collector and got him hooked after college. As his friend tired of Tim giving him grief about his own love of “funny books,” he made Tim a bet that he would change his view after reading Watchmen by Alan Moore. He was right. After reading that series, Tim jumped into X-Men. Over time, he has continued to love a wide array of superheroes, especially the antiheroes and “gray hats” (that is, those who are not naturally “white hat” heroes--Wolverine, Punisher, and Gambit would all qualify as Gray Hats). He prefers the antiheroes because being heroic and doing the right thing doesn’t come naturally to them. That’s his “beef” about Superman (the original superhero from that other company, DC)—very little struggle with his conscience! He just naturally always did the right thing.

Melissa Foster is our Senior Manager, Public Relations, Media & Studio Productions Department. Her love for Marvel has been a “slow burn”—in a good way! She’s seen every Marvel movie—including the 2002 Spider-Man and the X-Men movies. Some are better than others, she says, but when Marvel Studios set its focus back on the Avengers, that’s really when her level of interest changed.

What started out as a general interest in the movies flourished, thanks to one of her friends, who is a giant comic enthusiast and gave her more insight into the bigger Marvel Universe and the stories behind the characters. Seeing how innovative Marvel really is when it came to stories of diversity, and making their heroes relatable beyond the big screen, changed her from an occasional enthusiast to a person who owns Marvel TOMS (i.e. casual footwear featuring images of popular Marvel characters and scenes), pays for a subscription to Disney+ so she can watch their content, and is an avid reader of their comics. The movie that really made her say, “Wow!” was Captain Marvel. She loved watching a female superhero who didn’t have a love interest on the screen—and just was a total powerhouse. To Melissa, Captain Marvel is the most powerful Avenger. She’s so happy that this female superhero is represented in the exhibition.

For me (Donna), it has always been about the comic books, which is where I started my interest back in the early 1970s. Like Kate, I found Spider-Man relatable too. Like Tim, once I discovered Marvel, I thought Superman was totally one-dimensional. And I also first learned about Marvel from my best friend.

And now, on to the questions…

Q: What were the most memorable parts of the exhibit to you? Why?

  • Kate: In my role, I look at both the guest perspective as well as how the exhibit comes together during installation. The most memorable part to me is Dr. Strange’s mirror dimension. Not only do we have two highly recognizable costumes from the film, but the immersive set, including disorienting mirrors and projection, is so intricate and transporting. All of the work that went into its construction was really worth it.
  • Tim: Oh, boy, that’s a toughie! I loved the original artwork, since I have no artistic skill whatsoever and wish I did. The photo ops are tremendous, especially hanging on the couch with The Thing. The flow of the exhibit is on point, and I am always into the backstories of the characters and creators.
  • Melissa: I’ve seen the exhibit many times—including once before it came to The Henry Ford—and every time I walk through, something new strikes my interest. One of the most memorable things for me during all of this has been watching the “mini”-superheroes dressed in their Iron Man, Black Panther, Spiderman, and Captain Marvel costumes, coming in and not wanting to leave. I was on a shoot with a film crew one day and we were filming a tiny Iron Man interacting with the “Be Iron Man” experience in the exhibit. His mom looked at me and said, “We’ve been in here for two hours and he won’t leave.” That, to me, was amazing. I love watching people connect with our exhibits, and this one has brought in so many different and interesting connections.
  • Donna: I loved both reconnecting with my “old friends”—Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer—and becoming familiar with superheroes I didn’t know that well. And, like Melissa said, watching the families go through the exhibit is fascinating. It is so rare to see an exhibit where the kids are the experts!

Dark room with illuminated images at various angles
Mirrors in Dr. Strange section of exhibition.

Oversize mannequin with orange reptilian skin sitting on couch with illuminated drawing of city skyline behind him; additional cases and framed drawings on wall to right
Photo op with The Thing.

Q: What is your single favorite object or feature in the exhibit? Why?

  • Kate: My favorite object to talk about in the exhibit is right at the beginning—an original copy of Marvel Comics #1 from 1939. I’m a sap for a good origin story, and the beginning of the franchise is as good as any.
  • Tim: The photo ops, both in the exhibit and the photo booth outside. Who wouldn’t love seeing their picture in a comic book? Best $8 souvenir ever!
  • Melissa: If you go into Dr. Strange’s Mirror Maze, be sure to walk back through the opposite way one time, or at least look back before taking in the X-Men artwork. The kaleidoscope effect of the artwork displayed is absolutely beautiful, and it’s something you can’t get the full effect of if you walk through only once.
  • Donna: The issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, from 1962—the first appearance of Spider-Man. I never get tired of that!


Comic book cover with images and text in case
Marvel Comics #1 from 1939

Three framed drawings with text and images on wall; additional text and images in lighted case below and to right
Original artwork for
The Incredible Hulk comic books.

Q: If you were to describe the exhibit to someone who is new to Marvel, how might you describe it?

  • Kate: I would describe the exhibit as an excellent one-hour overview to the franchise. When I first saw the exhibit at a previous venue, I was astounded by how much was covered. If someone is considering jumping into Marvel comics, movies, or shows, they can certainly find a hook in our exhibit that could lead to continuing interests.
  • Tim: It’s a wonderfully immersive way to both experience the character history of Marvel and to enjoy a tangible way of putting yourself into their world.
  • Melissa: I would describe it as an exhibit for everyone. Seriously, people who love the movies might be interested in seeing their favorite character’s costume up close, but don’t skip the original artwork. There are some very talented artists at Marvel, and I think the work within this exhibit, would be appealing to even those who have zero interest in comics.
  • Donna: It’s great if you have a Marvel fan as your tour guide but the exhibition nicely helps you understand the characters and the Marvel Universe without having to feel embarrassed in front of your friends or family!


Person looking toward intersection of two walls with images and text
“Become Iron Man” interactive.

Q: What should they not miss?

  • Kate: “Become Iron Man” is such a fun interactive because you get to pretend to wear one of his suits and practice shooting targets. It’s my favorite interactive in the exhibit.
  • Tim: Bring a camera! You will want to capture and preserve the memories you create!
  • Melissa: Do NOT miss the Ant Man and Wasp area of the exhibit located just behind Spiderman. You won’t regret it. Its whimsical, and quirky—and I love it. If it wasn’t for the cool kaleidoscope feature of Dr. Strange’s Mirror Dimension, it would be my favorite part of the exhibit.


Three mannequins in costumes in case with text panel to left
Costumes from the Black Panther film.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

  • Kate: Marvel has such a long history that one of the best parts of hosting the exhibit is the intergenerational relationships that it nurtures. I love seeing two or three generations of Marvel fans walk through together, swapping stories of different plot points from stories about the same character over the decades.
  • Tim: Marvel is one of the best exhibits we have hosted in the Gallery. It is colorful, informative, and fun for all ages. I can’t remember another exhibit we have hosted that was as much pure kick-in-the-pants fun. To sum the exhibit up in one word, let me quote Marvel legend Stan Lee—“Excelsior!”
  • Melissa: This year has been such a difficult one for everyone. Sometimes it’s nice to escape the reality for a minute and get distracted by something fun. The Marvel exhibit does just that. Even if you aren’t a fan of Marvel, just walking through and seeing the excitement it brings to so many, might be a little—dare I say it—contagious—in a good way!


So…there you have it! Thanks, Kate, Tim, and Melissa! We hope this little fan exchange has whetted your appetite to see—or return to see—the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition before it closes at the end of January 2021. And no doubt you have—or will have—stories of your own to tell!


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Check out these links for her previous blogposts related to comic books:Hooked on Comic Books,” “Comic Books Under Attack,” and “Battle of the Superheroes.” All photographs courtesy of Caroline Braden.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, popular culture, events, by Donna R. Braden, Henry Ford Museum, comic books

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