We are truly living in unprecedented times. On Friday, March 13, 2020, The Henry Ford closed its doors due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. We did not open them again until Thursday, July 2—and even then, only on certain days, with many new guidelines in place about masks, social distancing, and capacity, to protect our visitors and staff. None of us predicted that we would remain closed for 16 weeks—but then, there is much happening now in the world that would have been difficult to predict.
One of the many unusual things that happened over that four-month period is that the most-viewed section of our website was our Digital Collections. While our online collections typically get tens of thousands of views each month, they’ve always fallen well short of our “Visit” section—until COVID-19 shut our doors. Between mid-March and late June, visitors viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections about 285,000 times. This whetted our curiosity about what artifacts people were looking at during our closure, and why—so we decided to put a list together and take a closer look.
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760
One group of artifacts that was not on last year’s list, but that was highly viewed during our closure (and since), is items related to the challenging history of race in America. Given the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, many Americans are seeking to broaden their understanding in this area, which might explain this uptick in interest. A slave collar, a “Whites Only” drinking fountain, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, and an Emancipation Day photograph are all artifacts on exhibit in “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation illustrating this disturbing history—and all were sought out by hundreds to thousands of online visitors between mid-March and late June.
This slave collar was featured in an online article called “Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About George Floyd’s Neck.” / THF13425
Another group of items that seems pandemic-specific are documents and photographs from the World War II era. In George Washington Carver’s last agricultural bulletin, published in February 1942, he encourages Americans to consider wild plants (what many might call weeds) as an alternative to green vegetables, should the war cause shortages. In March, journalist Nicholas Kristof referenced our Willow Run expert set as an example of ramping up production in a short timeframe in a New York Timeseditorial about the coronavirus. Likely as a result, a B-24 Liberator bomber production flowchart and a photograph of a B-24 in flight made it into our top artifacts over this period. A “United We Win” poster speaks to both World War II and issues of race relations.
Ford Motor Company’s fast ramp-up of B-24 Liberator bomber production during World War II provides insight on the ramp-up of coronavirus testing and treatment supplies in 2020. / THF251440
The last pattern we noticed was the popularity of artifacts related to recent films, at a time when many Americans stayed at home and increased their movie watching. Three auto racing photos—including the single-most viewed item during our closure, this photograph of race car driver Ken Miles at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—demonstrate the continuing popularity of Ford v Ferarri, the 2019 movie about that very race. This letter, allegedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford, has been popular ever since last year, when Netflix released The Highwaymen, a movie about the race to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde. During our closure, it was the fifth-most viewed artifact in our online collections.
This portrait of Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in 1966 was the most-viewed artifact from our Digital Collections during our closure. / LeMans06-66_441
It’s interesting to see patterns in views of our digital artifacts that map so closely to what has been going on in the world. To see if you can find any additional patterns we missed, check out the entire list of the most-viewed digitized artifacts during our COVID-19 closure here. And check out our Digital Collections for yourself—you might just find something there of value to you during these strange times.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In an ironic twist, one of the artifacts we were able to digitize remotely during the pandemic is this roll of toilet paper, on exhibit in Your Place in Time in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
If you’ve visited our Digital Collections lately, you may have noticed they now feature more than 95,000 digitized artifacts. We’ve previously written about the process we use to digitize artifacts—as you might suspect, it involves lots of close physical contact with other human beings and with the artifacts themselves. Right now, during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, this is not possible: some of our digitization colleagues whose work requires campus access are on temporary unpaid leave, and others whose work is more computer-based continue working from our basements, dining rooms, and dens.
Still, between March 14 and May 22, we added almost 3,300 new artifacts to our Digital Collections—all in the 10 weeks since decamping from our offices. But how can we continue to add new items to our Digital Collections without access to the actual collections themselves?
A lot of the answer is infrastructure. We’ve been digitizing our collections in a consistent way for almost a decade now, and over those years have built out a robust system to support adding hundreds of new items to our Digital Collections every day. Our collections database is available to us from home, and we have automated processes in place to pick up new items daily. We can do research on items, and add this information to our database, from home. But what about the images?
A very modern-looking textile from a 1900-1901 sample book, digitized during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we left campus, there were many objects we’d imaged in the last few months for ongoing projects that hadn’t yet been put online. We are continuing to work through this backlog, adding the images to our collections database and updating our cataloging so they can be reviewed and flagged for online use. Some notable additions in this category since mid-March are more than 700 Hallmark ornaments from the sizeable collection we acquired last year, nearly 200 items digitized through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship (including trade cards and textile sample books), and more than 150 artifacts digitized through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
In addition, we have a number of collections that were already in digital format, whether natively or digitized by the collector, when they came to us. A sizeable example is the Dave Friedman Collection, which was partially scanned by Dave Friedman before being donated to us. There are now more than more than 32,000 auto racing photographs and documents from the Friedman collection in our Digital Collections—including the more than 1,000 we’ve added remotely.
One of the many Dave Friedman Collection auto racing images we've added to our Digital Collections during the pandemic. This one shows the Chevrolet Corvette C1 driven by Dave MacDonald in the Production Sports Car Race before the 4th Annual Grand Prix for Sports Cars in Riverside, California, in 1961.
We also are lucky, as an institution in its 91st year of existence, to have a sizeable backlog of older images that are often quite acceptable (or can be made acceptable, by some strategic Photoshop work) for online access. We always prefer to get a new image of an artifact when possible—but during the pandemic, that has not been possible. So we’re combing through the existing images we have, whether those are scans of old black-and-white images from our first few decades, 20th century slides that were scanned later on, or images taken on 35mm film that have been transferred to digital format.
In this last category, artifacts with legacy images, to date we’ve had a couple of top priorities: 1) artifacts being utilized for our extensive series of online content and programming, and 2) artifacts that are on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—since you can’t see these in person right now, you’ll at least be able to see them digitally! Since we left campus, we’ve added nearly 200 objects on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation to our Digital Collections, bringing the total number of artifacts on exhibit in the museum that you can also see in our Digital Collections to more than 2,300—check them all out here. The recently added artifacts are mostly in Your Place in Time and Made in America, ranging from a Coty face powder box to an eight-track tape of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Next, we plan to tackle some of the many artifacts on exhibit in Greenfield Village, as well as items brought into our collection in the last couple of decades.
Weaving You Can Wear, one of many books in Your Place in Time digitized recently from existing images.
Across all these categories, there are thousands of artifacts we can add to our Digital Collections without access to our collections—and we will continue working through them until we can safely return to The Henry Ford’s campus and are back up to full capacity. In the meantime, we invite you to dig into our Digital Collections to revisit your old favorites and maybe turn up some new surprises.
If you aren’t sure where to start, you might check out some Expert Sets we recently completed. Our curators selected artifact highlights from our collection in a number of focus areas, namely:
Once we complete our Sagan, it will seamlessly integrate artifacts, textual content, furnishings, and custom-created 3D artwork--something like this example we’ve been playing around with.
For nearly a decade, The Henry Ford has been adding items to our Digital Collections, which now contain over 95,000 digitized artifacts. For almost as long, we’ve been exploring creative ways to work with those world-renowned assets--from including our entire digitized collection on touch-screen kiosks in Driving America back in 2012 to linking tens of thousands of digital artifacts using curator- and AI-created connections in our latest exhibit, Intersection of Innovation.
Some of the best explorations of our digitized collections come through collaborations with partners who can take our content to new levels. Working with other organizations and companies to figure out how we can simultaneously highlight both their platforms and technologies and our own digital assets is a challenge in innovation. Today, we’re excited to tease one such partnership project that is coming soon: a new “Sagan,” created in collaboration with Saganworks.
This is what our Sagan looked like before we added any furnishings or artifacts to the space. Different collections will be highlighted in each “room” within the Sagan.
Saganworks is an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based technology startup with a big goal--to bring multimedia into 3D space and change the way people interact with either their personal content or traditionally in-person spaces, such as museums and storefronts. Individuals can build a virtual room, otherwise known as a Sagan, capable of storing content in a wide variety of file formats, and virtually walk through their rooms like a gallery. With the combination of audio, visuals and a wide variety of customizations to choose from (such as furniture and room layout), individuals are able to experience their Sagans holistically, making Saganworks not just an alternative to in-person spaces, but a unique adventure.
The artifacts you see when you visit Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation or Greenfield Village only represent 5-10% of our object collections, and an even smaller percentage of our archival collections. The rest of our collections live in storage, but we try to find ways to make them accessible to the public by means of temporary exhibits, our Digital Collections, and loans to other institutions.
We currently have 233 artifacts, ranging from coffee pots to airplanes, on loan to 39 different institutions around the world, and we’ve just digitized a number of artifacts, such as this circa 1955 hat worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, that we have loaned to the V&A Museum in London for their upcoming exhibit Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, about fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.
As cars became more widespread during the early 20th century, mechanized vehicles began to replace horses and wagons in wartime. While tanks were tested on the battlefield during World War I, there was also a need to remove wounded soldiers from the front quickly, safely, and efficiently. Ford Motor Company’s Model Ts were light, economical, and easy to operate, which made them perfect for this need.
We’ve just digitized dozens of photographs and drawings showing these innovative World War I–era Ford Model T ambulances, including this October 1918 demo picture, with the wartime message “On to Berlin” visible on the shoe soles of the “patient.”
Visit our Digital Collections to browse more photographs and technical drawings of Model T ambulances. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.
Kathryn Emerson and Dr. James Buntin were interested and active in social causes such as welfare rights, Civil Rights, and education, among others, during the 1960s and 1970s, and the collection contains dozens of buttons that we’ve just digitized, including this one proudly declaring “Be Black Baby.” We’ve also recently digitized some of the couple’s clothing, books, and other materials.
We bring hundreds to thousands of new artifacts into our collection every year, and many of those enter our digitization stream so visitors can access them online. We’ve just digitized a series of posters that came into the collection in September 2016.
Created around 1960 by the Ford Motor Company Research and Information Department, the educational works depict a number of ways humans have measured length, including the fathom, and how these measurements have increased in precision over time.
As you might expect, a car company with as long a life and as many different vehicles in production at various times as Ford Motor Company needed to document down to individual nuts and bolts each part of each vehicle. Over the 50 years between 1903 and 1957, Ford produced more than one million parts drawings, a comprehensive microfiche set of which now reside in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center. We’ve just digitized several hundred of these parts drawings, including a couple dozen, like this one, that cover Model T ambulances built by Ford to be used during World War I.
We continue to digitize one of the highlights of our vast auto racing collections, the Dave Friedman collection of photos. Over the course of 2016, we added 2,330 new items from this collection to our online holdings, bringing the total digitized from the Friedman collection to almost 21,000 images.
While these images capture the drama and the spectacle of car racing in the 1960s, nearly nine out of ten of those we’ve digitized thus far are black-and-white photos. However, we’ve just digitized a set of several dozen color images from the 1960 United States Grand Prix at Riverside, including this shot where you can enjoy the vivid red noses of the cars.
One of the key aspects of the Dymaxion House in Henry Ford Museum is its central mast, which supports the entire structure. Buckminster Fuller, who created Dymaxion, had a lifelong interest in creating maximal structural strength with minimal materials and weight, most famously seen in his work with geodesic domes. When Fuller won his first commission for a geodesic structure, the Ford Rotunda, he worked with the Aerospace Engineering Lab at the University of Michigan to create a truss for load testing. Saved twice from being discarded by university staff, this test module was donated to The Henry Ford in 1993.