Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Turning to Artifacts during a Pandemic

September 23, 2020 Archive Insight, Think THF

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.

Open car with green upholstered seat and visible mechanics
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760

Over half (58%) of the artifacts that were the most popular during our closure are also on the list of the most popular artifacts of 2019. Not surprisingly, this covers many of our national treasures and our visitors’ favorite artifacts, like the Quadricycle, the Rosa Parks Bus, the Lincoln Chair, and the Allegheny steam locomotive.

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.

Collar with three tall prongs extending upward and heavy lock.
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 Times editorial 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.

Black-and-white image of airplane flying over tall buildings.
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.

Black-and-white photo of smiling man
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.

movies, African American history, COVID 19 impact, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl

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