When I saw the photo of the President of the United States sitting on the Rosa Parks Bus in Henry Ford Museum – like many - I was struck by the profundity of the image. President Barack Obama visited the museum during a private event a month ago. During his visit, White House photographer Pete Souza Tweeted the above image with this caption:
“I just sat in there for a moment and pondered the courage and tenacity that is part of our very recent history but is also part of that long line of folks who sometimes are nameless, oftentimes didn’t make the history books, but who constantly insisted on their dignity, their share of the American dream.” - President Barack Obama, April 18, 2012 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
As the photo of the president was making the rounds in the social sphere (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), many observant commentors noted that they thought Mrs. Parks sat on the other side of the aisle. She did. This diagram from the National Archives shows that her seat was across the aisle from the where the president sat.
The presenters at The Henry Ford knowledgeably point out the actual seat to visitors - who are welcome to sit on the bus. I've watched some eagerly slide right into the spot she sat, while others, like me, don’t feel quite as bold. Mrs. Parks’ personal civil disobedience makes the seat seem a bit like hallowed ground to me. I will say - while sitting on the bus and listening to the recording of Mrs. Parks' tell the events of that day in 1955 - that quiet moment in history really comes alive.
If you’ve ever traveled through With Liberty and Justice for All – the permanent exhibit at the museum that includes the bus – you can’t help but be reminded of the long line of people who stood up (or sat down) for freedom in this country starting from its very founding.
The photo above shows the camp cot and chest used by George Washington when he was commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Visitors can get up close and see the rocker in which President Abraham Lincoln sat when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, while watching Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC.
Of course there are more non-presidential items in that exhibit, but I found myself prompted to investigate some of the other items that are part of The Henry Ford's collections specifically because of their relationship to past presidents.
There are five presidential limousines in which many presidents sat. There are photographs of presidents sitting such as Abraham Lincoln reading a book to his son Tad, President Warren G. Harding and family sharing a dining table with the Vagabonds* on a 1921 camping trip, and my personal favorite is this one of President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover at the California Pacific International Exposition, San Diego, 1935. (Is he sleeping?) Whatever they are sitting in, I want one.
There are letters to and from some of the 44 men who have held the office - so in writing letters (maybe not reading) I can assume they were seated as well.
All sitting aside, there are also archived collections of presidential bumper stickers and banners, buttons and ribbons marking campaigns, elections and celebrating inaugurations (you can see some of these on The Henry Ford's Online Collections site).
There gifts given by and to presidents or items used by presidents while in office or at home.
Examples include the above Galvanometer used to receive Queen Victoria's message to President James Buchanan over the first transatlantic cable in August 1858, or the newly acquired portable outdoor kitchen once owned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I’m sure some artifacts from President Obama’s time in office will eventually make it into an exhibit somewhere in The Henry Ford (some election and inaugural memorabilia are already part of the collections). But for me - as a fan of The Henry Ford - it was especially poignant to see the county’s current (sitting) president seated in that particular artifact. It's a perfect example of how the institution uniquely gives visitors the opportunity to not only look at some of our nation's treasures from the outside, but to climb right in, take a seat and experience history from the inside.
* Between 1916 and 1924, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs, calling themselves the Four Vagabonds, embarked on a series of camping trips.
Kristine Hass is a blogger and long-time member of The Henry Ford.