Advocacy in Museums: Selecting a Powerful Object

The Rosa Parks Bus                             From the Collections of The Henry Ford

 Photo by Wayne Hsieh            [Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

In 1993 Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village (now The Henry Ford) adopted a new mission statement: “The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.”

It is that last sentence that is most relevant to the issue of advocacy. The mission does not define what a “better future” entails, but the organization’s purpose for being involves preparing people to “help shape”— to be active, to participate. As if to drive the point home, in 2002 the organization adopted this exhortation as its theme statement: “Ordinary people have changed the world. You can too!”

Simultaneously, senior management began to search for methods of broadening the institution’s topical scope. Well known for its deep collections and public interpretation of technological innovation, the organization was seeking ways of more directly interpreting social and cultural change in the American past. If Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers were the prototypical innovators presented here, how could we treat individuals whose innovations were not technological? The term that came to mind was social innovation.

The institution’s early collecting history, dictated by Henry Ford himself, showed a lack of interest in political issues and personalities. At the time of the Bicentennial of American Independence, 1976, the organization did acquire several large collections of political campaign materials and identified items of political relevance in other collections. These included campaign parade torches in the lighting collection and commemorative medals in the coins and medals collection. Still, political history was among those topics, along with Native American history, medical and scientific history, and military history that the organization “did not collect or interpret.”

In 1999, a team from the Department of Historical Resources was charged with
developing collection themes (or topics, as some call them) for political history. Building on the strengths of the existing collections and the idea of social innovation, the political history themes include:

· Campaign materials: person-to-person political office seeking, especially in
Presidential campaigns or state/local elections where issue politics are
· Issue Politics: civil rights, women’s issues, health, environment and the
economy, cultural issues, war and peace
· Cultural Critiques of Politics: satire and humor as well as serious criticism
· Memory and the Presidency: memorializing dead presidents

Under the auspices of these collection themes, a number of artifacts representing past civil rights movements, anti-war movements, and women’s issues were acquired.

In 2001, a bus purported to be the one on which Rosa Parks was arrested on
December 1, 1950, was going up for public auction. Rosa Parks and the bus fit
neatly into the notions of issue politics, ordinary people and social innovation.
Acquiring this bus as the artifact by which to tell the story of her personal courage and the public’s commitment (or was it her personal commitment and the public’s courage?) was a natural progression based on the mission, theme and collection plan. The rest is history.

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This article first appeared as: William S. Pretzer, “Advocacy in Museums: Selecting a Powerful Object” included as a sidebar in Tara White and Kathryn Boardman, “Advocacy in Museum Interpretation and Public History: The Strength of Place,” in ALHFAM Bulletin, Spring 2006, pages 12-16.

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