Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Scanning through history

September 20, 2012

I spent this summer interning at the Benson Ford Research Center helping the effort to digitize the museum’s enormous collection. When I started working here, I told a friend our collection has more 20 million 2-D objects. They replied, “Wow, that’s a lot of stuff about cars.” Well, we do have a lot of stuff about cars—everything from old concept car drawings to bumper stickers through the ages. But The Henry Ford collection also includes many other objects.The Henry Ford Museum was established in order to collect and preserve pieces of everyday life that would tell the story of America to later generations. In my time as a scanner, I helped to digitize many objects that we are not exhibiting — I helped to prepare these objects for digital exhibition on our website so we could continue to tell stories about the history of America, and not only that, but reach an even wider audience for those stories.

It’s amazing how advertising has changed in the past 100 years

The Henry Ford online collection is a 24/7 digital exhibition of various artifacts from American history that the museum has collected over the years, an exhibit that keeps growing, an exhibit that you can visit any time, anywhere, for free — if you have Wi-Fi. Before working here, I knew the museum’s collection was impressive, but I never understood how big the collection really was. If I were to keep scanning images, adding about 60 new artifacts to the website every day, it would take me over 50 years to finish updating the website — and I’d be old enough to retire.

The collection is not only enormous, it is also incredibly diverse. I have scanned old trade cards, original baseball handbooks, and pictures from events at the Chicago and New York World’s Fairs. This was an awesome opportunity because many of these objects have never been on exhibit in either Greenfield Village or the museum. Working here, I learned more about the museum’s impressive collection, and in the process, more about American history, facts that we often ignore in history courses, the experience of everyday life.

Letter from The International Chili Society

For example, I spent some time scanning albums of the Unser family. I did know about Bobby Unser’s career in NASCAR, but I learned more about his day-to-day life and his relationship with his family — I saw him as a person I could relate to instead of a distant historical figure. I learned about his love of travel, his fondness for deer, and his passion for cooking chili.

Perusing the archives changed the way I think about history — I understand how events and people from the past are similar to my own life. Drawing these parallels makes the past more familiar and helps to explain how and why things have changed. I enjoyed my time working at the museum very much, and I encourage readers to spend some time looking at the online collection, a fun and enriching historical resource.

Keshav Prasad is a sophomore at University of Michigan, and spent the summer interning for The Henry Ford Digitization Project.

artifacts, digital artifacts

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