Top Picks for Innovative Artifacts
January 30, 2017 Archive Insight, Think THF
Some of the curators at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation chose an artifact that stood out to them as the most innovative. When asked to choose an artifact from the museum that symbolized innovation, a lot of the curators had trouble picking just one.
The manure spreader displayed in the agriculture exhibit inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation looks more like a work of art than a piece of farm equipment. Laborers painted the wooden box yellow and red, added pinstripes, and stenciled the manufacturer’s name and model number prominently on its exterior. This made the spreader a moving advertisement during the Golden Age of agriculture, roughly 1900 to 1920.
During this time some farmers profited from high market prices paid for the commodities that they grew. The spreader symbolized their investment in new ways of doing business. They purchased more land, built new farm buildings including corn cribs and dairy barns, and bought pure-bred livestock and new agricultural equipment to help them do their jobs. The spreader reduced the labor required to move increasing amounts of manure from barns and stables and apply it to their arable land. The machine distributed the organic manure and its three essential elements (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) more evenly than pitching manure from a cart onto the fields. Not all farmers practiced such intensive animal husbandry, and thus, they had little use for such innovations, but the spreader answered the prayers of other farm families with livestock housed in barns and stables and fields in need of nutrients.
Jim Johnson - Curator of Landscapes and Historic Structures
My favorite innovative object is the Newcomen Steam Engine. Though it is not the actual very first one, it is among the first design generation of the world’s first steam engine and in essence, represents the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the machine age. By having this direct association with the Industrial Revolution, the Newcomen is at the foundation of what would become the world we live in today.
Donna Braden - Curator of Public Life
Among my favorite innovative artifacts in the museum are the small and often-unnoticed plastic dishes in the 1950s (“Buying the Future”) case in Driving America, part of the raised timeline. Dishes made of the chemical melamine (sometimes referred to as Melmac) became wildly popular during the 1950s because industrial products like this were considered a sign of progress and modernity; their minimal design was thought to be“sleek” and “modern”; they were marketed as unbreakable and thus were considered perfect for Baby Boomer kids; and their bright colors, as shown in the case and the exhibit, perfectly matched the colors of other consumer products of the time, like cars. I also chose these dishes because they are so darned ordinary-looking and because, growing up in a large family of Baby Boomer kids myself, my mom always opted for anything that didn’t break and we had a set of these ourselves.
Charles Sable - Curator of Decorative Arts
I have many "favorite" objects in the Museum. One that I am particularly fond of is Victor Schreckengost's "Jazz Bowl" (1931) located in "Your Place in Time." What I find fascinating about it is how Schreckengost was able to adapt the cubist aesthetic found in European and American high art to a punch bowl. Further, he made cubism serve as a narrative of New Year's Eve in New York City.
Matt Anderson - Curator of Transportation
Ah, that’s always the question a curator dreads most. The truth is, my favorite object tends to change on a daily basis! That said, I have a soft spot for Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle. In and of itself, the vehicle really isn’t innovative, but it represents Ford’s all-out devotion to his dream – spending so much of his free time (and even a little work time) putting this little car together in the shed behind his house. It’s also a fine example of Ford’s philosophy to learn by doing. He certainly could read plans and blueprints, but Ford was most comfortable working in three dimensions. What does it take to build a working automobile? Henry Ford thought the best way to answer that question was to just go ahead and build one! Of course, without the Quadricycle, we never would’ve gotten Ford’s signature innovation: the well-designed, well-built and affordable Model T.
Kristen Gallerneaux - Curator of Communication & Information Technology
My favorite artifacts change all the time, but lately on my daily walks through the museum, I’ve been stopping to visit the Eames kiosk that originally appeared at the IBM Pavilion in the 1964 New York World’s Fair. I love this piece because its connections to innovation are invisible or hidden in plain sight, waiting to be revealed. It might seem like an unlikely-looking thing to have been witness to computing history—but it was. Kiosks like this one were used by IBM at the World’s Fair to demonstrate new technologies—including one of the first public demonstrations of optical character recognition, and a new computer-based language translation service. Our particular kiosk was used as a canopy to protect elements of the Mathematica exhibit. As for the “hidden in plain sight” moment, if you stoop down and peek under the canopy, you’ll find an image of a bouquet of flowers printed underneath. These wildflowers were picked in Zeeland near Herman Miller’s offices, shipped on dry ice to the Eames Office in California, artfully arranged by Ray Eames—and finally photographed by Charles.
These are just a few of the artifacts that showcase different types of innovation here on the floor of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation; what's your favorite?
Halie Keith is a Media & Film Relations Intern at The Henry Ford.