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NAAM 2015 – The State of the Auto Museum World

March 30, 2015 Think THF

"Old Pacific II," a 1903 Packard Model F in the National Packard Museum. The car's name is an homage to the original "Old Pacific," in the collections of The Henry Ford.

It was time once again for four days of education and fellowship as the National Association of Automobile Museums (NAAM) convened for its annual conference from March 17-20. Our host this year was the wonderful National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, some 50 miles southeast of Cleveland. Approximately 65 volunteers, administrators, curators and board members, representing institutions from Maine to California, gathered to discuss the state of the automobile museum world.

Session topics covered most aspects of museum management. There were presentations on grant research and writing, exhibit planning, marketing and merchandising, and non-profit tax codes. Few talks could match the session on disaster planning for pure drama, though. Wendell Strode, Executive Director of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, updated us on his institution's infamous sinkhole disaster of February 2014. Though five vintage Corvettes were damaged beyond repair, the museum was featured in more than 2,000 media outlets around the world, and visitation jumped astronomically due to the coverage. I continue to be impressed by the speed and style with which Wendell and his staff responded to the crisis.

I was honored to have my own slot on the conference schedule, together with Raney Bench, Executive Director of the Seal Cove Auto Museum on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Raney and I presented on best practices for interpreting history at auto museums. We’ve come a long way from the days when cars were squeezed into galleries, row after row, with little or no label copy beyond technical specifications and sale price. Today we realize that this is not enough. Visitors prefer immersive environments where the automobile is placed in a larger context. (Take, for instance, the entrance to our own Driving America exhibit, were our 1956 Chevrolet sits under the famous McDonald’s golden arch – an example of the car’s effect on our foodways.) In the session, I especially emphasized our “Build a Model T” program – about as immersive as it gets – in which visitors assemble an entire car, piece by piece, each and every day.

One of the more imposing pieces at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a 16th century Italian suit of armor for a rider and horse.

As is often the case at professional conferences, some of the best discussions took place outside of the conference room itself – on the tour bus, in the hotel lobby, or at the nearest watering hole. There was much conversation – particularly between the seasoned veterans and the young emerging professionals – about efforts to preserve cars of the 1980s and 1990s. We talked about cars that were commonplace (like our 1986 Ford Taurus), iconic (anything with hidden headlights, like the third and fourth generation Pontiac Firebird) or ahead of their time (like the 1986 Buick Riviera, the first production car equipped with touchscreen controls). Surely someone, somewhere, should preserve a Chrysler K-car or a Saturn S-series, too. One of those cars helped save a company, and the other represented America’s most ambitious effort to emulate the imports.

A 1936 Ford, a 1960 Thunderbird and a 1966 Lincoln - all in stainless steel - at the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection.

No NAAM conference is complete without a few tours, and we had some great ones this year. In Warren, we were taken behind the scenes at Delphi’s Champion Technical Center Testing Laboratories. Automobile electrical systems are put through the paces in Delphi’s labs, and promising new technologies are explored and refined into practical products. We then made the short trip to Cleveland to visit the inspiring Cleveland Museum of Art (one painting there, The Pie Wagon, reminded me of a familiar sight in Greenfield Village) and the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Crawford is home to more than 140 automobiles and ten aircraft, not to mention a few motorcycles, boats and horse-drawn vehicles. The collection places particular focus on Cleveland-built marques, and Winton, Baker, White and Peerless are all represented. But the Crawford ranges beyond Cleveland, too. Of special interest to me was Model T serial number 577 – one of the early “two pedal, two lever” cars from 1909 – and a trio of stainless steel autos built in a collaboration between Ford Motor Company and Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Yes friends, I spent my spring break by the Caribbean - this 1956 convertible version at the National Packard Museum.

Of course, there was one more museum to tour: our gracious host. The NAAM conference concluded on Friday evening with a banquet at the National Packard Museum. We dined among Clippers and Caribbeans while “NAAMY” awards were presented for the best exhibits, programs and publications of 2014. It was the perfect end to a full, yet refreshing, four days with friends and colleagues. Many of us are already counting down to next year.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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