When production of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation began in 2013, we knew the show would provide a tremendous opportunity to share our stories with new audiences. We also knew it would require tremendous resources. But we couldn’t have predicted the show’s longevity or success, with six seasons and three Emmy awards to date – or the important role our digital collections would play in the project. From planning to post-production and beyond, the images and information we’ve made available through digitization have become TV stars in their own right.
Digital Collections pages are a handy resource for the Innovation Nation producers. They provide information about artifacts – like this tomato harvester, which will be featured in season 8 – and help the stories take shape.
Our Digital Collections factor into the earliest stages of story development for Innovation Nation. Even before the show’s producers begin to discuss potential angles for a particular topic with the experts at The Henry Ford, they’ve often explored related Digital Collections pages. This provides background information, helping to guide the story and ground it in solid historical research. It also shapes the producers’ vision for the story, helping to determine where it will be filmed and what we might need to bring out for the cameras.
After a story is filmed, our work is just beginning. We add any featured artifacts that aren’t already online to our queue for digitization. Including them as part of our Digital Collections makes them accessible to wider audiences and gives us the option to include them in future digital content. In addition to the “on camera” collections, supporting graphic and video assets from our holdings often appear in the final cut. We research our collections, digitizing new material as needed, and provide high-resolution image and video files to the story’s producer and editor. Sometimes, the producer will even write a script that highlights these supporting assets. An artifact doesn’t have to be two-dimensional or in video format to be considered – photographs of our three-dimensional collections may be featured, as well.
Though informative, the short-form stories that air on Innovation Nation can only say so much. Our Digital Collections and content offer viewers a chance to dig even deeper. Each episode has a dedicated webpage on thf.org that provides links to resources – such as blog posts, expert sets, or groups of related digital collections – that provide context for a particular topic and further highlight our holdings and expertise. Often, the “Dig Deeper” section of an episode webpage contains brand-new content, created specially to support that Innovation Nation story. So, whether you’re a long-time viewer or just learning about the show, it’s worth visiting thf.org to explore more. To get started, consider checking out content related to some of our most recent episodes here, or browse featured artifacts from all the seasons of Innovation Nation in our Digital Collections.
The Henry Ford reached a digitization milestone recently, adding the 100,000th artifact to its Digital Collections website. The digitization team at The Henry Ford began a little over ten years ago to update and add to this site. Early on, we developed data standards that guided our progress. Certain required information -- a title, an object name, dimensions, creator, and searchable keywords, to name a few -- accompanies each object record. And every object that goes online must have an image that meets our standards.
This graphic shows the various tasks in The Henry Ford's digitization workflow, and where writing a summary fits in.
But have you noticed that many of The Henry Ford’s online collections records have a small label-like paragraph -- something called "Summary"? As staff at The Henry Ford looked at other institutions' collections webpages, we noticed many contained standard descriptive information, but few explained the importance of the object. Some collections webpages added a detailed (sometimes dry) physical description, or maybe text from an old exhibit label, or sometimes long academic articles. The digital collections staff at The Henry Ford wanted something more reader-friendly, something informative, and perhaps even enjoyable. After a series of discussions, we decided that a short 60-word paragraph -- a Summary -- was the solution. A Summary would answer the question, “So what?” -- why is this object important for The Henry Ford to collect and preserve? -- and hopefully spur viewers to explore our digital collections more deeply.
A Summary is one of the first things you see when you go to a Digital Collections record page. This GIF shows the Summary for Mustang serial number one, along with much other information about the car.
When staff originally conceived of the idea, a Summary was viewed as a vital part of the online data, but not a requirement. Finding the right words for some object Summaries takes time, and the 60-word limit is constricting -- though we do allow a few more words when needed. An object usually can tell multiple “So what?” stories, and curators -- the primary authors of a Summary -- would like to share them all. What one “So what?” story would you choose to tell if you were writing a Summary about the rocking chair used by President Lincoln on the night of his assassination, a Ford Model T, or the home (or cycle shop) of Orville and Wilbur Wright?
Even seemingly mundane objects offer interesting insights. Curators thoroughly research these objects then carefully choose words that will convey a coherent idea--while at the same time working within the prescribed word limits. Our research into an object's history and use provides viewers with a deeper understanding of our online collections.
What could be more mundane than a wattmeter -- a device used to measure electricity usage? Learn more about how electric companies found ways to measure electricity usage and charge customers appropriately in the Summary for this c.1907 Type C Wattmeter. / THF168572
The man in this carte-de-visite was originally identified as an acrobat in our collection records. But while researching the image to write the Summary, the curator discovered that this "acrobat" was Henry Brown, a well-known long-distance walker. / THF210533
Though a Summary may not be perfect, we hope that it gives viewers an insight into our collections that will spark an "a-ha" moment. And staff at The Henry Ford have created well-researched blog posts, Expert Sets, What If stories, and Connect 3 and other videos for those viewers who want more in-depth stories about our collection.
So, how are we doing? Currently, more than 65,000 of the 100,000 Digital Collections objects have a Summary, and curators continue to add more. We have plenty of work in the future.
Do you want to give it a try?
Find an object in your home (or go to our Digital Collections website and find an object without a Summary) and write a 60-word Summary to answer the question, "So what?" -- why is this object important? Some objects may be easy to write about; others, not so much. Remember that readers should understand the concept you are trying to convey, and perhaps be inspired to want to know more.
The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
If you’ve done any of these things, then you’ve had an encounter with our digitization program.
As you might be able to tell from that list, digitization of our collection now underpins much of what we do, and helps us fulfill our mission to inspire people to learn from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation to help shape a better future. For about a decade, The Henry Ford has been systematically adding artifacts to our website, and today we are proud to announce that we have just added our 100,000th artifact. We are using this opportunity to kick off a month-long celebration during the month of November, and will be giving you behind the scenes looks at the digitization process, sharing fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections, and counting down the most popular digitized artifacts of all time.
Our 100,000th digitized artifact is this photo--of the 100,000th Fordson tractor. / THF146392
As an institution that holds artifacts in the public trust, we have always cared for them and documented them. But the amazing expansion of the digital realm over the last decade has given us new ways to expand access to our fascinating and significant stories. According to the Pew Research Center, when we embarked on this effort in earnest around 10 years ago, one-quarter of Americans did not use the Internet, only 4 of 10 Americans participated in social media, and American smartphone usage was rare.
Our original Digital Collections website.
Our beginnings, too, were humble. Our initial digitization efforts in the early 2010s were funded by generous gifts from Lynn and Paul Alandt and Benson Ford, Jr., on behalf of the Benson and Edith Ford Fund. Our first collections website began with only 500 artifacts included—the very first being this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe used by Henry Ford.
Our first digitized artifact was this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe, used by Henry Ford. / THF87486
As time went on, the number—and breadth—of artifacts we had digitized grew. By 2012, we’d reached 8,000 digitized artifacts; by late 2013, we’d hit 20,000; and two years ago, we hit 75,000. At the same time, technology proliferated—smartphone usage skyrocketed, and web users started to rely on being able to access information anywhere, any time.
Over the years, we’ve digitized artifacts being put on display in new exhibits both large and small, new additions to the collection, artifacts used in The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, objects that tell innovation learning stories, and many other “hidden gems” that may not have been on display for many years. They underpin innovative new interactive experiences in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and allowed us to present a comprehensive online content program during the current coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you’re a fan of The Henry Ford, you’ve probably benefitted in some way from our digitization program.
So we invite you to join us throughout the month of November here on our blog, as well as our social media channels, to learn more about the many steps that go into this process and the experts on our staff who make it happen—and to learn some fun and interesting facts about our collections along the way. The first week will provide an overview of our work; the week of November 9 will focus on collections management and conservation; week three will focus on the work of our registrars; and we’ll wrap up Thanksgiving week with a highlight on our imaging staff.
And don’t forget to check out our Digital Collections for yourself—share your favorites with us on social media using the hashtag #digitization100K.
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.
Motor Controllers for the Telescope at the Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, 1932. THF134290
As long as humans have existed, we have looked up at the night skies and wondered about the stars, planets, moons, and more that we see there. Among the collections of The Henry Ford are objects that speak to the underlying tools and technologies that allow our understanding of the universe to grow. These artifacts demonstrate that whether we are observing celestial bodies or venturing into space, we design ways to overcome the many challenges of comprehending and exploring the cosmos.
We recently asked a number of our staff to pick a favorite artifact from among our space-related collections. Many of the selections showcase observatories—the process of constructing them, the machinery that makes them tick, and the ways they discover and share knowledge about our universe. Others cover the promise, challenges, and triumphs of our journeys beyond Earth's atmosphere.
All these artifacts, which you can explore in our Expert Set, tell the story of humanity's ambitious desire to learn more, understand more, and travel beyond our own world.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
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.
Many people know Steve McQueen as an actor in such popular 1960s and 1970s films as The Great Escape, Bullitt, and The Thomas Crown Affair. But McQueen was also a racecar enthusiast, to the point where he once reportedly said, "I'm not sure whether I'm an actor who races or a racer who acts.”
To help shed some light on this issue, we’ve just digitized nearly a dozen photos of McQueen visiting designer Carroll Shelby’s Shelby-American shop in Venice, California, in 1963, including this image of both men at the shop.
Visit our Digital Collections to see more images from McQueen’s visit, as well as tens of thousands more artifacts from our vast racing collections. Or, if you’re more interested in McQueen’s acting, check out our 1974 movie poster for The Towering Inferno.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.
In the digital age, it’s easy to keep up with your favorite bands—you might sign up for their email list, follow them on social media, or get text alerts on your phone. In any of these cases, you’ll probably know when they’re coming to your town to perform.
In the mid-20th century, though, posters were a way to show potential fans which acts would be performing, where, and when. Bright colors, bold graphics, and dramatic fonts caught the attention of passers-by in cities where dozens of venues competed for audiences.
With the 50th anniversary of the Summer Of Love just a few months away, we’ve just digitized a few great examples of rock posters dating between 1969 and 1971, including this poster advertising Chuck Berry, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Boz Scaggs at Pepperland in San Rafael, California, in 1970.
Update: This post was originally written on March 13, 2017, only a few days before Chuck Berry’s death at the age of 90. I obviously had no foreknowledge of that event to come, but this poster, out of all the ones we digitized, caught my eye because Mr. Berry holds such a large place in our collective memory, and is an artist I deeply respect and enjoy. I’m glad that The Henry Ford is able to preserve and share some of his quintessentially American legacy. Hail, hail, Chuck Berry—may you rest in peace and your music live on. –Ellice Engdahl, 3/20/17 Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.