Kennedy’s Death Car (a 1961 Lincoln) and an exhibit of fast food signage.
The Henry Ford Museum* (and its outdoor Greenfield Village) is a 254-acre attraction in the process of metamorphosis. Once a vast, humorless collection amassed by a vastly humorless man, it has slowly been transformed by the forces of pop culture and light into something worth visiting.
Much remains of Henry Ford’s original, grueling vision. There are long lines of big steam engines dug into the floor (so that their flywheels will fit), a Fats and Resins display, a parade of office machines, and the Hall of Furniture.
But the automotive material, once an unorganized pile that battered you senseless with gray aggregation, is now an interesting homage to the motorcar and its impact on America, using the museum’s huge, un-air conditioned spaces (and bottomless bank account) to full advantage.
Car Culture is ennobled. The Museum has, indoors, full-sized billboards and a working drive-in theater (where Ford Motor’s first production Edsel is displayed, hidden behind a speaker). Also here are neon restaurant signs from McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s, a Holiday Inn hotel room, and a Texaco Gas Station. High ceilings shelter a whole roadside diner, complete with a live human waitress, on duty to dispense museum information. The parade of vehicles is eye-popping, including an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
You are shown how auto design happens, with scale models of the Lincoln Futura, the Packard Predictor, and The Ford Nucleon, powered by an atomic reactor. Full sized dream cars include Ford’s X-100 50th Anniversary model from 1953, with an electric shaver and Dictaphone as standard equipment.
Unfortunately, the path of auto history, which moves past cars beginning with the earliest models, ends not with a Ford or a Lincoln, but with a 1983 Honda Accord. And, while a Tucker is on the path, there is no DeLorean. Still, these are small complaints.
One of the amazing similarities between Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy is that both objects they were sitting in when shot in the head are on display at the Henry Ford Museum. Kennedy’s Death Car, a 1961 Lincoln, and Lincoln’s Death Chair (an 1861 Kennedy?), complete with hair pomade-stained upholstery, can both be seen up close.
Henry Ford proclaimed that this museum, which opened in 1929, would show how the inventions of a few (mainly Ford and his industrialist pals) had forever changed America. The artifacts of Harvey S. Firestone, Luther Burbank, and Thomas Edison (including his last breath, in a test tube) are sprinkled throughout. Their historic homes make up much of The Greenfield Village.
But for all of the fascist scope and organization of this museum, it never really revealed how American society benefited from industrial progress. Now, finally, someone seems to be making Henry Ford hip.
*In 2003 the Henry Ford Museum brought in an outside marketing firm, which proclaimed the word “museum” to be awful. They renamed the place, “The Henry Ford: America’s Greatest History Attraction, ” and insisted that everyone refer to it as simply, “The Henry Ford.” That lasted for 14 long years. Then in in 2017 the museum accepted that it was, in fact, a museum, and renamed itself, “Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.”