Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Our New Year’s Resolution: More Artifacts at Your Fingertips

January 5, 2012 Archive Insight

The coming of a New Year is a great time to set resolutions, and for 2012, The Henry Ford has picked at least one doozy that we are very excited to share!

Over the course of the year, we will be digitizing our most “significant” icons in each of the core categories in our collections — and making those available on our collections website to anyone who is interested.

So what does that mean, and why are we so delighted about it?

Digitization is the process of making photos and information about the collections of The Henry Ford available online. In a way, this is a process that dates back to the founding of the institution, as artifacts have been catalogued and photographed over the years for internal purposes.

However, the information and images we’ve gathered and the ways in which we’ve stored those for our own usage don’t necessarily equate to the robust web presentation that we want to share with the world— so we have been spending a lot of time updating and standardizing catalog records, taking great new photographs of the collection, and writing brief narratives on the purpose and meaning of each object.

This is all part of a big project we’ve been calling CAN-DO: Collections Access Network for Digital Objects.

We really got going in earnest with this effort in 2011, with the bulk of the objects digitized either in or related to the new Driving America exhibit, which opens at the end of January. The Henry Ford obviously has very strong transportation collections, and this means that right now our digitized collections contain everything from the very rare and beautiful Bugatti...


1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Convertible, from the collections of The Henry Ford. Only six Royales were ever made. an iconic Charles Sheeler photograph of the Ford Rouge plant in the late 1920s...

Open Hearth Building at Ford Rouge Plant, photographed by Charles Sheeler, 1927, from the collections of The Henry Ford.

…and everything in between.

"How to CB" Phonograph Record, 1976, from the collections of The Henry Ford. “Slanguage” — get it?

As 2011 began winding down, we started to think about what we would digitize in 2012. The Henry Ford has an embarrassment of riches in its collections, including hundreds of thousands of 3D objects and about 25 million 2D artifacts housed in the Benson Ford Research Center. Digitizing it all will be a multi-year, if not multi-decade, effort. What, we asked ourselves, should be our focus in 2012?

The answer was obvious: We need to make sure the public has digital access to the most “significant” artifacts at The Henry Ford. I put the term “significant” in quotation marks purposely, as significance has multiple meanings. Few could argue that an artifact like the city bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat is not a significant historical object. It is also institutionally unique. Many museums have civil rights artifacts, but there is only one Rosa Parks bus, and the only place to find it is at The Henry Ford.

The Rosa Parks Bus, an American icon from the collections of The Henry Ford. Photograph by Michelle Andonian.

The other dimension of “significance” is personal resonance. Certainly the Rosa Parks bus has personal significance for many people. But there’s also a pretty hefty degree to which personal significance diverges. For example, I wouldn’t necessarily expect this Buck Rogers poster to have personal significance for a large percentage of the public.

Buck Rogers Comic Strip Characters and Space Vehicles, Cocomalt Premium, circa 1934, from the collections of The Henry Ford. Featuring a space pterodactyl!

For me, though, this happens to be one of my very favorite collections objects that we’ve digitized thus far. It features a space pterodactyl, a disintegrator ray, rocketships, and many spacemen in dapper outfits, all illustrated with bright colors and fantastic graphic detail. These all happen to be things that I enjoy (space pterodactyls being a new but noteworthy addition to the list), so to me, this is particularly interesting.

We’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations about all the aspects of “significance” and how they relate to the collections of The Henry Ford, and have started throwing out ideas and making lists. Over the course of 2012, you will see these objects begin to show up on our collections website, but you’ll also hear about them in other ways — via blog posts from staff members, in the curators’ Pics of the Month and any other ways we can think of to share the stories that these objects tell.

We could not be more excited to start this project, and hope you are excited about it as well. Check our collections website frequently to visit your old favorites from the collections and discover new ones!

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, which she thinks is quite possibly the coolest job ever — even if it’s a hazard of the job that her favorite collections object changes about 10 times a day.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Ellice Engdahl, digitization, digital collections

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