The Henry Ford’s curatorial team works on many, many tasks over the course of a year, but perhaps nothing is as important as the task of building The Henry Ford’s collections. Whether it’s a gift or a purchase, each new acquisition adds something unique. What follows is just a small sampling of recent collecting work undertaken by our curators in 2021 (and a couple in 2020), which they shared during a #THFCuratorChat session on Twitter.
In preparation for an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller made several new acquisitions related to board games. A colorful “Welcome to Gameland” catalog advertises the range of board games offered by Milton Bradley Company in 1964, and joins the 1892 Milton Bradley catalog—dedicated to educational “School Aids and Kindergarten Material”—already in our collection.
Milton Bradley Company Catalog, “Welcome to Gameland,” 1964. / THF626388
Milton Bradley Company Trade Catalog, “Bradley’s School Aids and Kindergarten Material,” 1892. / THF616712
We also acquired several more board games for the collection, including “The Game of Life”—a 1960 creation to celebrate Milton Bradley’s centennial anniversary that paid homage to their 1860 “The Checkered Game of Life” and featured an innovative, three-dimensional board with an integrated spinner. “The Game of Life,” as well as other board games in our collection, can be found in our Digital Collections.
This year, Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content, was thrilled to unearth more of the story of designer Peggy Ann Mack. Peggy Ann Mack is often noted for completing the "delineation" (or illustration) for two early 1940s Herman Miller pamphlets featuring her husband Gilbert Rohde's furniture line. After Rohde's death in 1944, Mack took over his office. One commission she received was to design interiors and radio cases for Templetone Radio. The Henry Ford recently acquired this 1945 radio that she designed.
Radio designed by Peggy Ann Mack, 1945. / Photo courtesy Rachel Yerke
Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated the book Making Built-In Furniture, published in 1950, which The Henry Ford also acquired this year. The book is filled with her illustrations and evidences her deep knowledge of the furniture and design industries.
Making Built-In Furniture, 1950. / Photo courtesy Katherine White
Mack (like many early female designers) has never received her due credit. While headway has been made this year, further research and acquisitions will continue to illuminate her story and insert her name back into design history.
Katherine White also worked this year to further expand our collection of Herman Miller posters created for Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic. The first picnic poster was created by Steve Frykholm in 1970—his first assignment as the company’s internal graphic designer. Frykholm would go on to design 20 of these posters, 18 of which were acquired by The Henry Ford in 1988; this year, we finally acquired the two needed to complete the series.
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Lollipop,” 1988. / THF626898
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Peach Sundae,” 1989. / THF189131
After Steve Frykholm, Kathy Stanton—a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program—took over the creation of the picnic posters, creating ten from 1990–2000. While The Henry Ford had one of these posters, this year we again completed a set by acquiring the other nine.
Along with the picnic posters, The Henry Ford also acquired a series of posters for Herman Miller’s Christmas party; these posters were created from 1976–1979 by Linda Powell, who worked under Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller for 15 years. All of these posters—for the picnics and the Christmas parties—were gifted to us by Herman Miller, and you can check them out in our Digital Collections.
Thanks to the work of Curator of Communications and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux, in early 2021, a very exciting acquisition arrived at The Henry Ford: the Lillian F. Schwartz and Laurens R. Schwartz Collection. Lillian Schwartz is a groundbreaking and award-winning multimedia artist known for her experiments in film and video.
Lillian Schwartz was a long-term “resident advisor” at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. There, she gained access to powerful computers and opportunities for collaboration with scientists and researchers (like Leon Harmon). Schwartz’s first film, Pixillation (1970), was commissioned by Bell Labs. It weaves together the aesthetics of coded textures with organic, hand-painted animation. The soundtrack was composed by Gershon Kingsley on a Moog synthesizer.
Complementary to Lillian Schwartz’s legacy in experimental motion graphics is a large collection of two-dimensional and three-dimensional materials. Many of her drawings and prints reference the creative possibilities and expressive limitations of computer screen pixels.
“Abstract #8” by Lillian F. Schwartz, 1969 / THF188551
With this acquisition, we also received a selection of equipment used by Lillian Schwartz to create her artwork. The equipment spans from analog film editing devices into digital era devices—including one of the last home computers she used to create video and still images.
Editing equipment used by Lillian Schwartz. / Image courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
Altogether, the Schwartz collection includes over 5,000 objects documenting her expansive and inquisitive mindset: films, videos, prints, paintings, sculptures, posters, and personal papers. You can find more of Lillian Schwartz’s work by checking out recently digitized pieces here, and dig deeper into her story here.
Katherine White and Kristen Gallerneaux worked together this year to acquire several key examples of LGBTQ+ graphic design and material culture. The collection, which is currently being digitized, includes:
Illustrations by Howard Cruse, an underground comix artist…
Illustration created by Howard Cruse. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A flier from the High Tech Gays, a nonpartisan social club founded in Silicon Valley in 1983 to support LGBTQ+ people seeking fair treatment in the workplace, as LGBTQ+ people were often denied security clearance to work in military and tech industry positions...
High Tech Gays flier. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
An AIDSGATE poster, created by the Silence = Death Collective for a 1987 protest at the White House, designed to bring attention to President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis...
“AIDSGATE” Poster, 1987. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A number of mid-1960s newspapers—typically distributed in gay bars—that rallied the LGBTQ+ community, shared information, and united people under the cause...
“Citizens News.” / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A group of fliers created by the Mattachine Society in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which paints a portrait of the fraught months that followed...
Flier created by the Mattachine Society. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
And a leather Muir cap of the type commonly worn by members of post–World War II biker clubs, which provided freedom and mobility for gay men when persecution and the threat of police raids were ever-present at established gay locales. Its many pins and buttons feature gay biker gang culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Leather cap with pins. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
Another acquisition that further diversifies our collection is the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt, recently acquired by Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller. This striking quilt was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias.
“Nude is Not a Color” Quilt, Made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Door, and Contributors from around the World, 2017. / THF185986
Fashion and cosmetics companies have long used the term “nude” for products made in a pale beige—reflecting lighter skin tones and marginalizing people of color. After one fashion company repeatedly dismissed a customer’s concerns, a community of quilters used their talents and voices to produce a quilt to oppose this racial bias. Through Instagram, quilters were asked to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones.
Shirt blocks on the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt. / THF185986, detail
Quilters responded from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. These quilt makers made a difference, as via social media the quilt made more people aware of the company’s bias. They in turn lent their voices, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection.
Jeanine Head Miller has also expanded our quilt collection with the addition of over 100 crib quilts and doll quilts, carefully gathered by Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy over a period of forty years. These quilts greatly strengthen several categories of our quilt collection, represent a range of quilting traditions, and reflect fabric designs and usage—all while taking up less storage space than full-sized quilts.
During 2021, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid has been developing a collection documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed around three million young men. This year, we acquired the Northlander newsletter (a publication of Fort Brady Civilian Conservation Corps District in Michigan), a sweetheart pillow from a camp working on range land regeneration in Oregon, and a pennant from a camp working in soil conservation in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.
We also acquired a partial Civilian Conservation Corps table service made by the Crooksville China Company in Ohio. This acquisition is another example of curatorial collaboration, this time between Debra Reid and Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable. These pieces, along with the other Civilian Conservation Corps material collected, will help tell less well-documented aspects of the Civilian Conservation Corps story.
Civilian Conservation Corps Dinner Plate, 1933–1942. / THF189100
If you’ve been to Greenfield Village lately, you’ve probably noticed a new addition going in—the reconstructed Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market. While we acquired the building from the City of Detroit in 2003, in 2021, Debra Reid has been working to acquire material to document its life prior to its arrival at The Henry Ford. As part of that work, we recently added photos to our collection that show it in service as a horse stable at Belle Isle, after its relocation there in 1894.
“Seventy Glimpses of Detroit” souvenir book, circa 1900, page 20. While this book has been in our collections for nearly a century, it helps illustrate changes in the Vegetable Building structure over time. / THF139104
Riding Stable at the Eastern End of Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 1963. / THF626103
Horse Stable on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, July 27, 1978. / THF626107
This year, Debra Reid also secured a photo of Dorothy Nickerson, who worked with the Munsell Color Company from 1921 to 1926, and later as a Color Specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Research into this new acquisition—besides leading to new ideas for future collecting—brought new attention (and digitization) to a 1990 acquisition: A.H. Munsell’s second edition of A Color Notation.
Dorothy Nickerson of Boston Named United States Department of Agriculture Color Specialist, March 30, 1927. / THF626448
All of this is just a small part of the collecting that happens at The Henry Ford. Whether they expand on stories we already tell, or open the door to new possibilities, acquisitions like these play a major role in the institution’s work. We look forward to seeing what additions to our collection the future might have in store!
When you think of museums—particularly history museums—it seems to make sense that they are inevitably all about the past. From an artifact collecting standpoint, there is an element of truth to this—most anything a museum can collect already exists and is already sliding into the past. But, putting aside ideas about the swift passage of time, it is important to understand that many museums—including The Henry Ford—do engage in what is known as “contemporary collecting.”
Contemporary collecting seeks to document history as it is happening, and relates to significant current events, trends, or cultural moments. When this collecting is done in the heat of the moment, especially when the conditions being documented are ever-changing or incredibly brief, it is known as “rapid response” collecting. Rapid response collecting relies on a well-tuned sense of what events will have greater historical significance—even after they are over—and requires a particularly proactive approach to gathering information and objects.
One example of contemporary collecting occurs every four years, when The Henry Ford collects material related to the presidential election cycle. This postcard, created by Sea Dog Press, is from our 2020 collecting initiative. More examples from that initiative can be found here. / THF622210
In early 2020, the world was overtaken by the COVID-19 virus. It soon became clear—as industries ground to a halt, scores of workers were sent home, and international travel all but ceased—that the pandemic would become a major moment in history. Upon this realization, the curatorial staff of The Henry Ford went to work, developing a rapid response plan to document the still-unfolding pandemic. When developing this plan, the curatorial staff was keen to ensure that these collecting efforts not only captured a vivid perspective on the pandemic but also built upon the uniqueness of our collections. They determined to focus on three broad themes: innovation on a nationally significant level, grassroots resourcefulness on the part of individuals, and ingenuity demonstrated by businesses and entrepreneurs. Within each of these categories, curators identified topics that had already begun to emerge, and noted potential objects or types of objects that could be acquired.
With the plan complete, it was presented to The Henry Ford’s Collections Committee—the chartered committee responsible for reviewing and approving all proposed additions to the collections of The Henry Ford. The majority of the committee’s business consists of taking a final vote as to whether or not an item should be accessioned—the term for officially adding an item to the collection. However, some acquisitions are discussed with the group before curators begin making final preparations to acquire them; this gives the committee an opportunity to weigh in on proposed acquisitions that may be more complex, or that would require a greater outlay of the institution’s time or resources. The committee also approves all collecting initiatives, as they typically involve special effort, or result in a larger number of acquisitions; having the committee’s endorsement ensures that the collecting can be adventurous and creative but within clear parameters. Once approved by the committee, the COVID-19 Collecting Initiative was put into place, and curators began gathering information and materials.
Our COVID-19 collecting initiative included outreach to people with items of interest, such as Brighid "Birdie" Pulskamp, a Diné craftswoman who created a beaded facemask featuring a traditional Navajo wedding basket design, as well as fabric masks that she sent to the Navajo Nation to help combat the spread of the virus on reservations. / THF186023, THF186021
While many acquisitions for the collection are actively sought out by our staff, others end up finding us. On September 9, 2020, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson returned to Collections Committee with word that Ford Motor Company—with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship, particularly in regard to collecting—had reached out to him regarding a prototype COVID-19 testing van that they had developed. Ford Motor Company’s COVID-19 response—particularly their shift from manufacturing automobiles to producing equipment and supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19—had already been a point of interest on our radar, and had been specifically identified in the collecting initiative.
After hearing the details of the acquisition, the Collections Committee gave Matt a “consensus to proceed” with the acquisition. Consensuses to proceed are given after an initial discussion of a potential acquisition, but before said acquisition is presented for final accessioning; they allow curators to proceed with making any necessary arrangements—like shipping—without overcommitting the institution, should the circumstances of an acquisition change.
Ford Transit Van, Modified for Use as a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Facility, 2020. / THF188109
In working with Ford Motor Company to arrange the donation of the COVID-19 testing van, Matt had the opportunity to discuss other COVID-19–related material that Ford had produced. Of particular interest were the ventilators produced at Ford’s Rawsonville plant. Ford indicated that they would be willing to offer us not one but three of those ventilators: a standard one, one signed by the Rawsonville workers, and one signed by President Donald Trump during his visit to the plant. Would The Henry Ford be interested in all three?
In considering objects, The Henry Ford also considers the stories they represent, and these three ventilators were no different. While one alone would have served to document Ford’s manufacturing response, collecting all three would allow us to tell a more multi-layered story. The blank ventilator is just like all the others that rolled off Ford’s assembly line; the one signed by the Rawsonville employees documents and celebrates the people who made Ford’s manufacturing feat possible; and the one bearing President Trump’s signature captures his historic visit to the plant. While we are always cautious of over-duplication in our collection, in this instance, while the objects themselves were similar, the elements of the story were distinct, and all were important to document via our collection.
In addition to the COVID testing van and ventilators, Ford Motor Company also offered numerous pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) they had prototyped or produced: ventilator connectors, masks, face shields, a gown, and a door pull. Matt accepted all of these items and began preparing them for presentation to Collections Committee, crafting a justification for their addition for the collection and writing a brief summary of their historical significance. On November 11, 2020, the Collections Committee gave their final seal of approval, voting to approve the addition of the van, ventilators, and assorted PPE to The Henry Ford’s collection. With that, the process of rapid collecting—at least in the case of the Ford COVID-19 response acquisitions—had come full circle.
As it turned out, though, just as the pandemic continued on, so too did our collecting opportunities. Ford Motor Company reached out again in the new year with more PPE—this time, though, created for a very unique event: the 2021 inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. Ford had produced 15,000 single-use masks—in two designs, printed by Hatteras, Inc., in Plymouth, Michigan—to provide to those attending the ceremony. Matt Anderson gratefully accepted the 10 masks Ford offered us, noting their significance, as their production not only furthered Ford’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus, but also demonstrated Ford’s commitment to, in the words of the company’s president and CEO, Jim Farley, “a tradition so fundamental to our democracy.” Just like the testing van and other COVID-19 materials donated by Ford, these masks were presented to the Collections Committee for final approval, which was readily granted, and they became an official part of the collections of The Henry Ford.
This face mask, produced for the 2021 inauguration, represents a unique overlap of two contemporary collecting initiatives undertaken by The Henry Ford: documenting the 2020–2021 presidential election cycle and documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. / THF186524
Thanks to the quick thinking and eager work of the curatorial department and the efficient processes of the Collections Committee, The Henry Ford was able to start documenting the COVID-19 pandemic as it was happening, and—with the help of a well-established relationship with Ford Motor Company—quickly tick an important item (and then some) off our collecting wish list. The thoughtful work of our staff and the relationships they build with outside organizations prove time and again to be key elements of building our collections, whether that be through collecting the past or the present.
“Donation - Crash Test Dog” isn’t the type of subject line you typically see on an email. Yet just after Thanksgiving in 2019, that’s exactly what landed in the Benson Ford Research Center’s email queue. Sleepypod, makers of safety-conscious pet carriers and other related pet products, wanted to know if The Henry Ford would be interested in the donation of MAX2, one of the early crash test dogs they had designed to simulate a live pet in a series of crash tests used to demonstrate the increased safety of Sleepypod pet carriers. For the curator’s consideration, Sleepypod provided photos of MAX2, as well as a brief history of how and why he was developed.
The offer went off to Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson. Intrigued, Matt wanted to follow up on a few questions with the folks at Sleepypod. Of first concern: would Sleepypod be able to hold on to MAX2 until the new year? With just over a month left in 2019, there would be very little time to get MAX2 on site, develop a comprehensive write-up, present it to The Henry Ford’s Collections Committee for approval, and get a deed of gift sent off to—and returned by—Sleepypod. Thankfully, Sleepypod was happy to hold onto MAX2 for us.
Matt was also interested in knowing if the donation would include one of Sleepypod’s pet carriers, and if there was any associated press or marketing material they would be willing to include. Collecting these additional items would help us tell a more complete story about the company and their innovation. Sleepypod responded that not only would they be happy to offer MAX2 with a carrier and marketing material, they would also be interested in donating CLEO 1.0, their first crash test cat. Matt eagerly accepted their offer.
In January 2020, MAX2 and CLEO made it to their new home at The Henry Ford, by way of arrival at our relatively new Main Storage Building (MSB). In previous years, objects would arrive at the curatorial offices in the Benson Ford Research Center, where they would be deposited in a small holding room until formally approved and accessioned; they would then be taken elsewhere for storage. MSB, however, is equipped with two rooms dedicated to new acquisitions—one where objects can be examined by our conservation staff to make sure they do not pose a risk to other objects (via issues like insect infestations), and another where “clean” objects can be stored on compacting shelving until they are accessioned and assigned a permanent location, typically within the same building. Utilizing MSB in this way not only helps us keep better track of pending acquisitions, but also saves time and effort on behalf of our Collections Management team, as they have less distance to move objects after they have been accessioned.
Matt began prepping MAX2, CLEO, the carrier, and associated material for presentation to Collections Committee, the group responsible for approving all additions to the collections of The Henry Ford. In order to make his case for adding these crash pets to the collection—after all, “adorableness” is in the eye of the beholder, and not an adequate justification for acquisition—Matt pulled together information on Sleepypod’s history, the development of MAX2 and CLEO, and the historical significance of a pet carrier designed with safety in a moving car in mind (an advancement that shows the next evolution of transportation safety, now that human lives have benefited from crash test technology). All of this was distilled into a short write-up, intended to give the committee a broad overview of the potential acquisition and the rationale behind suggesting it.
Collections Committee—likely won over by a combination of Matt’s thorough and engaging write-up, and the surprise guest appearance of MAX2 and CLEO as meeting attendees—approved adding MAX2, CLEO, the Sleepypod carrier, and the associated marketing material to the collection. The group of items was assigned an accession number—2020.31, denoting that it was the 31st accession group brought into the collection in 2020—and the registrars assigned each of the 3D objects a number within that group: 2020.31.1 for the Sleepypod pet carrier, 2020.31.2 for MAX2, and 2020.31.3 for CLEO. The photography studio photographed MAX2, CLEO, and the carrier, so that the objects would be ready to go up on our Digital Collections page, which provides photos and information for over 100,000 items (and growing) in The Henry Ford’s collection.
After the Collections Committee meeting, there was one final step to officially transfer ownership of MAX2 and CLEO to The Henry Ford: completion of deed of gift paperwork. Generated by the Registrar office for all donations that become part of the collection, the deed of gift serves as a legal document that formally transfers ownership of an object to The Henry Ford. It also provides an opportunity for donors to indicate how they would like to be credited if the object is ever exhibited, published, or otherwise presented to the public. Once this paperwork is completed by a donor and returned to The Henry Ford, the acquisition process comes to an end.
CLEO relaxing, waiting to be moved to her new home by her new owners / Photo courtesy Sophia Kloc
Although MAX2 and CLEO are certainly unique objects, the process by which they came to be part of The Henry Ford’s collection is the same one that every object must take. Although some acquisition offers (like the Sleepypod donation) result in a quick turnaround, others require more thought and research; while the process itself remains the same, the timeline is unique from object to object.
Without the wide variety of offers that The Henry Ford receives, our collection would not be what it is today. Sometimes the most interesting items we acquire are ones we would not have thought to look for, had someone not sought us out with an opportunity. Although we cannot accept everything—over 90 years of collecting means that many things are already represented in the collection, and other items just may not be a good fit for one reason or another—we always take the time to review the offers we are sent, never knowing when the next exciting acquisition may appear.
If you, too, are interested in providing an addition to the collections of The Henry Ford, information on how to start the process can be found here.
At The Henry Ford, we are happy to consider offers of acquisitions for our collection, as we greatly appreciate the public’s interest in—and desire to contribute to—our collection. While we cannot accept everything, we do give care and attention to every offer we receive.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions related to the acquisition process.
How do I contact The Henry Ford regarding an item I want to donate or sell?
The quickest way to reach us is via an email to the Benson Ford Research Center, at email@example.com. You can also contact us by mail or fax (details can be found here).
Benson Ford Research Center
What information do I need to provide to The Henry Ford?
We ask that you send current photos of the item, and as much information as you can about who owned the item and how it was used. We also need to know whether you’d like to donate the item or if you’d like to sell it (in which case we also need your asking price).
Can The Henry Ford tell me how much my item is worth?
For ethical reasons, employees of the museum cannot provide values or appraisals on objects. If you need help finding an appraiser, we recommend contacting the American Society of Appraisers.
How long will it take The Henry Ford’s curators to make a decision?
This varies quite a bit! For some objects, a curator will know right away if they are interested or not, and can get a response back to you pretty quickly. Other things, however, may require more research and consideration on our end. Although we will try to get back to you as quickly as possible, it can sometimes be a lengthy process.
What do The Henry Ford’s curators consider when making a decision on accepting an artifact?
Curators consider several criteria when considering an offer, including whether or not we have the same (or sufficiently similar) item in our collection already, how an item would fit into the collection given our mission and collecting plans, and whether or not we have the resources required to support an item's acquisition.
Can I just mail the item I want to donate to The Henry Ford?
In order to make sure that we can properly track and care for items, we ask that you please refrain from mailing us items until requested to do so. While we appreciate the intention, unexpected items take up extra space and staff time. If you send us an email first, we can better manage the process.
The curator has accepted my offer, and I’ve given you the item. What happens next?
Potential collection items go before our Collections Committee for final approval. In order to get an item ready for the Collections Committee, the curator will prepare a write-up explaining an item’s historical significance, any maker or user history, additional relevant information, and why they believe it should be part of the collection. The item is then voted on. If the item is approved, we will send you Deed of Gift paperwork to formally transfer ownership to The Henry Ford. If the item is declined, we will make arrangements to return the item to you.
Who do I contact if I have additional questions about The Henry Ford’s collections acquisition process?
Released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson’s death in 1990. His son Brian, along with his siblings, had taken over the company. Brian had previously worked on several of his father’s projects, including building the first penguin puppet for The Muppet Show, helping create the bicycle sequence in The Great Muppet Caper, and providing voices for the film Labyrinth (as Hoggle) and the TV series The Storyteller (as Dog).
Bill Haber, the Hensons’ agent, was the first to pitch the idea of creating a version of A Christmas Carol. While Brian—who was interested in continuing his father’s work, but wanted to avoid too much of a direct comparison—considered the idea, Haber took the initiative to sell the rights to ABC TV, who planned to make a television film. When longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl submitted his final script for approval, however, executives at Walt Disney Pictures opted to purchase it and make it into a feature film.
1876 edition of Christmas Stories, which included A Christmas Carol / THF624009
Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, first published in 1844, was hugely popular during its time. The first edition, published on December 19th, sold out by Christmas Eve, and four more editions would follow by the end of the year. During his lifetime, Dickens would adapt the piece for public readings, which he himself would perform until his death in 1870. Stage productions would soon follow, and even today it is common to see A Christmas Carol on offer from theater companies during the holiday season. The earliest surviving screen adaptation is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, from 1901. Between then and 1992, 14 other adaptations had hit the silver screen, and the plot of A Christmas Carol was familiar to many, even if they had not read the original story.
Portrait of Charles Dickens, 1865-1870 / THF121158
Originally aiming to make The Muppet Christmas Carol into a parody of the original story, in keeping with the irreverence for which the Muppets were famous, Henson and Juhl soon realized that no previous film adaptations had truly captured Dickens’s prose. Rethinking their approach, they decided to cast Gonzo in the role of Charles Dickens, and make him the omniscient storyteller—a device that not only allowed them to include dialogue that was 95% faithful to Dickens’s original work, but also mirrored the earlier public readings of the story. Rizzo the Rat joined in as Gonzo’s sidekick and a form of Greek chorus, interjecting often-humorous commentary throughout the film.
Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304876
Having decided on this approach, it was time to “cast” the rest of the story’s characters. As Brian Henson explained in a 2015 interview, “Bob Cratchit was a natural role for Kermit. He was almost playing himself.” The role of Mrs. Cratchit went to Miss Piggy, Tiny Tim was assigned to Robin the Frog, Fozzie Bear became Fozziwig (previously known as Fezziwig in Dickens’s original), and Statler and Waldorf served as the ghosts of the Marley brothers (a notably drastic change from the original, where there is only one Marley ghost—yet a necessary one, as you can’t have Statler without Waldorf, or vice versa). Other Muppets filled out the rest of the supporting cast, and brand-new Muppets were created for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, to detract less from the ghosts’ ominous nature.
Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304874
The one principal human actor in the production was Michael Caine, who played Ebenezer Scrooge. Upon accepting the role, Caine said, “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.” This choice continued the tradition of blending the world of the Muppets with the real world, seen in other Henson projects such as Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, arguably adding to the “realness” and accessibility of the works and worlds Henson created.
Although it opened to mixed reviews, and achieved only modest box-office success, the film went on to become a beloved part of the Muppet filmography. For some, the appeal lies in its faithfulness to Dickens’s original story. Others appreciate the film’s songs, written by Paul Williams (who also wrote “The Rainbow Connection”). For many, though, the best way to sum it up is that the film is simply delightful, marrying the best of the Muppets with the traditions of Dickens. In doing so, The Muppet Christmas Carol serves an example of the power of imagination to transform the familiar into something totally new.
Tiny Tim’s famous final line in A Christmas Carol, "God bless us every one," featured on the title page of Christmas Stories, 1876 / THF624011
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that started a year ago—and that we are still living through—is an extraordinarily significant moment in our history. It connects our nation’s past with its present and future—revealing who we were before, who we are today, and who we will become in the future.
As this pandemic began to unfold last year, museums quickly stepped forward to collect—or lay out plans to collect—evidence of it, in many different ways. The majority of these collecting initiatives were local and community-based. Curators at The Henry Ford also developed a plan describing our approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all our collecting plans, it reflects who we are and what we represent as an institution. This begins with our mission statement: The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
Using the filter of the mission statement, The Henry Ford’s approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic includes 3D objects, photographs, and archival materials that reflect how we are being innovative, how we are being resourceful, and how entrepreneurs are using their ingenuity to both address people’s needs and remain sustainable. In keeping with the scope of our collections, items must also have national significance. Even if they are local or regional, they should align with broader patterns and national trends.
Currently, we are actively bringing items into the collection that we have saved in our basements over the past year (because of COVID-19 safety protocols), as well as collecting ongoing trends (like vaccine-related items). Here are just a few examples of our collecting to date.
Masking and social distancing quickly became new habits, as seen in these signs from Henry Ford Health System. (Future acquisitions.)
This beaded facemask, created by Diné craftswoman Brighid “Birdie” Pulskamp, features a traditional Navajo Wedding Basket design. / THF186023
Many businesses and services adopted curbside pickup. This sign from the Northville [Michigan] District Library marked where patrons could pick up their online book requests without entering the building. (Future acquisition.)
A parody of the classic Goodnight Moon, Good Morning Zoom was created to help kids make sense of the changes in their world brought on by the pandemic. (Future acquisition.)
This wooden ornament references the shortage of toilet paper that occurred in the pandemic’s earliest days, making it a highly sought-after commodity. (Future acquisition.)
Holiday traditions took on new twists, such as this drive-thru Santa event in Bay City, Michigan. (Future acquisition.)
A facemask can be found for every holiday and occasion. (2020.104.2)
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been one of the most prominent medical voices updating the public on the fight against the virus. As early as April 2020—when the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame released this tribute—he was already viewed as a hero by many. (Future acquisition.)
Ford and subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing Company (TDM) converted Ford Transit vans into mobile COVID-19 testing units. Starting in April 2020, they took tests to health care workers and first responders—people who didn’t have to time to travel to a lab. Each van could test up to 100 people a day, and results were returned within 24–36 hours. Within a few months, the mobile testing program was extended to nursing homes, substance abuse centers, and community shelters. (2020.124.1)
Early in the pandemic, hospitals depended on scarce ventilators to treat patients with the most serious infections. Ford Motor Company employees built more than 51,000 ventilators at the Rawsonville Components Plant between April and August 2020. This unit, the last one off the assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 people involved in the effort. / THF185919
Health worries added to security concerns at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021. Ford produced 15,000 single-use face masks and donated them to ceremony attendees. Employees at Hatteras, Inc., who printed inauguration logos on the masks, worked around the clock to get them shipped to Washington and inspected by the Secret Service in time. (2021.19.6)
Ford subsidiary TDM manufactured more than five million face shields. Elastic, to hold the shield securely on the wearer’s head, was in short supply. TDM instead used flexible automobile weather stripping, pinned to the shield with automotive fasteners. / THF185929
Disposable face masks, made at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, were distributed free of charge to underprivileged communities, schools, food banks, and military veterans. The automaker set a goal to produce 100 million masks through 2021. / THF185913
Produced through the Amplifier Foundation, these posters acknowledge the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, and offer encouragement in the midst of upheaval. / THF621827, THF621829, THF621843
We continue to work through additional donations offered to us by the public; for more information on how to contribute to this collection, visit The Henry Ford - COVID-19 Collections. You can also see more pandemic-related artifacts in our Digital Collections, and read additional stories related to the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our blog.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.