Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Monumental Enterprise: Our Artifacts, an Exhibit, a Digital Story, a Partnership

July 2, 2013

Henry Ford 150 year chrome sealAs we digitize the collections of The Henry Ford, we try to find and tell complete stories—for example, we don’t just digitize the race car, but also trophies it won, and photos from some of its most famous races. Because of our broad collecting approach and the resultant depth of our collections, we uncover these stories all the time.

Sometimes fate and/or current events help us out. Though The Henry Ford is an independent institution, we do maintain a warm relationship with Ford Motor Company and often work together on projects. Recently we discovered a series of items in our collection that played a big role in Ford Motor Company’s history, both nearly 90 years ago and again just six years ago.

The items include a number of paintings, magazine advertisement proofs created from those (and other) paintings, and correspondence that formed an impressive ad campaign. The campaign itself consisted of 16 ads that ran in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines in 1924 and 1925. The ads, two-page spreads that contained both visually arresting artwork and a significant amount of text, explained the backstory of the Ford company at a time when, as Marc Greuther, Chief Curator and Curator of Industry and Design at The Henry Ford, states, the company was at “a certain kind of pinnacle” with their signature product, the Model T, but “the product is slipping.”

1924 Ford Motor Company Institutional Message Advertising Campaign, "Opening the Highways to All Mankind"

As fascinating as it is, this ad campaign might have disappeared into relative obscurity if it hadn’t been rediscovered by Ford Motor Company’s new President and CEO, Alan Mulally, in 2007. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Mulally said, “I was looking for a compelling vision, a comprehensive statement to deliver that strategy.” This ad campaign from the previous century provided just the fundamental sense of purpose that Mulally was after, and allowed him to create a new strategic vision that was embraced across Ford Motor Company.

Blast Furnace, 1924

As we discussed this backstory with Ford Motor Company, both organizations were extremely interested in highlighting the ad campaign. Marc Greuther conducted a one-on-one interview with Alan Mulally about the impact the earlier campaign had on today’s Ford Motor Company (you can view clips from that interview here and here). As discussions continued between our institutions, the Ford Motor Company Fund generously provided a grant to conserve and reframe some of the materials, as well as create videos covering the conservation process and interviews. We made plans to highlight some of the newly conserved paintings within our Driving America exhibit. The new exhibit was officially unveiled on June 24, with Alan Mulally and other luminaries (including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who checked in at the Museum on Foursquare) in attendance.

The new and improved marketing section of our Driving America exhibit.

The interactive kiosk within this section of the exhibit was updated to include new video clips featuring Marc Greuther’s interview with Alan Mulally, as well as additional analysis of the campaign by Marc. It also now features an electronic collections set containing all of the paintings, ad proofs, and correspondence connected to the campaign, as well as other related materials.

1924 Ford Motor Company Institutional Message Advertising Campaign, "From Source to Service"

In case you’ve ever wondered what it takes to pull this kind of historical story together, in both physical and digital formats, here are some of the groups that played a role:

  • Archivists from The Henry Ford combed the stacks, locating the ads and other materials related to the campaign
  • Registrars, archivists, and curators from The Henry Ford researched all of the materials as well as the backstory
  • Ford Motor Company provided access to Alan Mulally, Dean Weber (Manager of the Ford Archives), and other key corporate resources, both for interviews and project planning
  • The Ford Motor Company Fund provided a grant which underwrote conservation and reframing of some of the materials, as well as creation of videos covering the conservation process and interviews
  • Conservators, both at The Henry Ford and outside the institution, examined and conserved the artifacts
  • Curators at The Henry Ford planned the story, materials, and text for the new exhibit
  • Photographers and imaging specialists from The Henry Ford photographed and scanned of all the material
  • Digitization staff at The Henry Ford made sure all artifacts related to the campaign appeared online and on the interactive kiosk within this exhibit section
  • Museum and exhibits staff at The Henry Ford worked with contractors to update the Driving America exhibit with the new material
  • Events staff at The Henry Ford worked with Ford Motor Company to ensure the official unveiling went without a hitch
  • Ford Motor Company created a website to share photos, videos, and a press release relating to this project
  • And it continues to build… Staff at The Henry Ford have already fielded one loan request for some of the paintings and advertisements not used in Driving America (you can see them through October 2013 in the Michigan Modern exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
  • It certainly took a lot of time, effort, and funding to put this all together, but we hope you’ll agree that the resulting exhibit in Driving America within the Museum—as well as the digital assets, available to anyone around the world—are worth it. Let us know what you think.

    Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, is always trying to integrate the physical and the digital.

    artifacts, research, research center

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