Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Relevancy Remains

May 7, 2024

Relevancy Remains

In Your Place in Time, guests explore past technology, examining how it connects generations both present and absent

By Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communications & information technology and editor-in-chief of digital curation at The Henry Ford.

Since 1999, visitors to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation have experienced the Your Place in Time exhibit — and have increasingly found it challenging to find their place within it. The original concept for this exhibit was to use artifacts and immersive vignettes in such a way that our guests could learn how everyday technologies shaped the social and cultural values of various generations that came of age in the 20th century. Your Place in Time addresses five such moments: the Progressive or “Greatest” Era, the War or “Silent” Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and the Next Generation — now more commonly referred to as millennials.

But how does this exhibit remain relevant, given the fact that we are now almost two-and-a-half decades into the 21st century? And how does it serve visiting Gen Y millennials and Gen Z “zoomers,” born on the cusp of the two centuries? Or even more so, the current generational cohort — born between the early 2010s and mid-2020s — that social researchers have dubbed Generation Alpha?

In Your Place in Time, these eras are segmented into consensus viewpoints to explore a variety of cultural, social and political milestones. Common technologies are used as launch points for inspiration that led to new forms of popular culture, designed objects and media platforms, filtered into a somewhat sweeping and generalized idea of the American experience.

Photo by Bill Bowen

Photo by Bill Bowen

An underlying idea in this exhibit that is worth considering, however, is how many of the technological building blocks on display were used by people to find, access and establish communities. The communication networks that defined earlier generations —telephones, radios, broadcast media — began to stack up. They became much more ubiquitous as Gen Xers, for example, found access to home computers and tiptoed into the early internet. Meanwhile, many zoomers and all alphas are “born digital” and raised with internet 2.0, smartphones, social and streaming media.

As visitors today try to find their “place in time,” whether they are of a generation represented — or absent — there is a shared common behavior that stays true. By engaging with networked technologies and popular media, we also engage and bond with one another, maintaining and sometimes even expanding our communities: whether by writing a letter, picking up a landline phone or sending a text message, reading a newspaper or sharing a social post, watching a movie at a theater or at home, listening to a radio receiver or a playlist from a smartphone.

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2024 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.