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America on the Move
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Our New Idea

We wanted our new exhibits to be just as popular. But we wanted to engage a wider audience, an audience that has come to expect more from museums than objects in cases. And our new exhibit had to reflect the Museum’s new mission: American history. We would not do an exhibit about cars and trains, or even a transportation history exhibit. It would be an exhibit about transportation in American history.

Our exhibit would be about people and events. Who rode on the vehicles? What did they carry? Where did they go? How did they change the country? And why those things happened the way they did, and why it mattered, and still matters. We decided to examine four areas in which transportation shaped American history: communities, commerce, landscapes, and lives. And we focused on big themes of American history: urbanization and industrialization, immigration and migration, race relations, work and business.

After a great deal of thought—balancing historical importance, our themes, Museum collections, geography, type of transportation, and more—we chose fifteen stories, fifteen places and times. They are stories of how transportation affected people. They range from the arrival of the railroad in Santa Cruz, California, in 1876, to a rural school in Martinsburg, Indiana, in 1939, to a car dealership in Portland, Oregon, in 1950, to Los Angeles in 1999. Each story puts transportation artifacts—mostly vehicles—into historical settings. We put our stories in chronological order, to make the history easy to follow.

Buick Super sedan
A 1950 Buick is displayed in ...
Brochure for Wallace Buick, Portland, Oregon, 1951 (reverse)
A re-created Buick showroom from Portland, Oregon.

Once we had our stories, we set about bringing them to life. We determined to display our vehicles not on pedestals, but in context, in settings. We put them back into history, re-creating particular places and times. To do this, we used the theater designer’s tricks: sophisticated lighting, soundscapes, good stage sets and backdrops. We put people—mannequins—in every setting, more than 70 people in all. Every vehicle would have, at least, a driver. What better way of sending the message that this was an exhibit about people, not about vehicles?

Figure of streetcar conductor in Washington, D.C., section
Figure of streetcar conductor in Washington, D.C., section
Figures waiting for streetcar in Washington, D.C., section of exhibition
Figures waiting for streetcar in Washington, D.C., section of exhibition

Adding people and creating stage sets was the right thing to do. But to do it well took a lot of work. We created a “back story” for each setting, and for each person. What time of year, and what time of day was it? Where was the traveler coming from, where was he going to? What were the commuters, or the immigrants, thinking about? We worried about the details: How did people stand when waiting to board a trolley in Washington in 1900? How worn was the railroad platform in Salisbury? To answer these questions with a Smithsonian level of accuracy was a fascinating challenge.

We hope that our settings and other stories will engage our visitors. Even if they don’t read a word, the settings should get across our key points: that transportation is part of history, that it shaped American landscapes, lives, commerce, and culture.

But many visitors expect more—more details and description, more subtle nuance and analysis—and we provide that through exhibit labels and images. We organized a clear and consistent hierarchy of setting, image, and labels, trying to provide visitors with easily accessible information about what they see in the exhibit, and how it fits into a larger story of American history.

Exhibits are complex enterprises. They combine many elements, serve many purposes, meet many needs. They can’t be all things to all people, but they should allow most visitors to enjoy, engage, and learn. We hope America on the Move does that.

Enjoy the show!

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