Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lost in the brand

I was going to write a somewhat straightforward post about a Merecedes-Benz ad that I happened to catch on television this weekend (an unusual event as I very seldom watch TV). The ad alternates shots of people looking at old Mercedes E-class cars in the Mercedes-Benz Museum near Stuttgart with the usual footage of a gleaming new car careening around curves and over hills ("Professional driver on closed road--do not attempt at home"). At the end of the ad, the new car smashes through a glass wall of the museum and "takes its rightful place," as the narration puts it, along with its automotive ancestors.

According to a recent New York Times article, Mercedes' overall sales have fallen almost 30% over the past year, with its U.S. market taking the deepest plunge. But the company has decided that there's no mileage to be gotten from promoting efficiency and affordability as most other carmakers are curently doing. Instead, it's hyping its distinguished lineage and enduring association with luxury and innovative design, an association very much reflected in its sleek museum, designed by Amsterdam's UNStudio and opened in 2006. My original post was going to be about how interesting it was to see a company weaving its own heritage production and celebration into its advertising.

But it gets more interesting yet. In poking around looking for links for the post, I discovered that the museum's current exhibit just happens to be called "Evolution of the E-Class." So the ad is really an outlying piece of the exhibit, making the explicit connection between advertising the product and preserving/continuing the lineage. This didn't really surprise me--corporate and industry museums have always been about self-promotion, and lately we've seen a rash of high-profile new corporate museums being built or re-built. (These include the New World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, which opened in 2007 in Atlanta, Harley Davidson's flashy new Milwaukee museum in 2008, which I wrote about in an earlier post, and The Hershey Story, replacing the old Hershey Museum this past year, not to mention the Henry Ford complex in Michigan, now re-branded as The Henry Ford. Meanwhile, Wells-Fargo has steadily built a network of museums, now numbering nine, which may continue to expand as the bank absorbs other institutions around the country.)

What startled me when I made the link between the museum exhibit and the Mercedes ad was the sense that a production like this seems to have achieved utter seamlessness among design, exhibitry, promotion, product, media, and image--a state of perfect brandedness where all roads lead to the same place, and that place is all about buying and selling. Again, the basic dynamic isn't new, but this seems particularly well-integrated and far-reaching. From the museum's slick website (with its elaboration of the Mercedes-Benz "myth" but without any mention of Germany's two 20th century world wars, let alone the company's use of slave labor from concentration camps during the second one) to the book and movie tie-ins (check out the inclusion of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones's sunglasses from Men in Black 2, which featured a flying E-Class Mercedes-Benz) to the television ad campaign to the sexy museum building itself, there's a sense of control and hyper-coordination that leaves me feeling a bit short of breath, and not in a good sense.

The "fourth wall" is being broken in this ad, with the new car rushing into the museum. But the wall is breaking inward, into the over-determined territory of the brand rather than outward into any kind of messier or more participatory cultural production. Any musealogical reflection taking place here is strictly the kind that results from gazing at a shiny surface, self-referential and self-serving. (See, this is why I usually don't watch TV!)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Both vintage and viable

The places and activities I'm most fascinated by are the ones where the relationship between the past and present is unstable and up for grabs. This past week, as I was taking the train up to Canada and back for a family visit, it occurred to me that trains fall into that category--increasingly so, as more tourist railroad routes are developed and as more people are riding trains as an everyday alternative to cars. (While it's true that car use in the U.S. is increasing--it grew 21% between 1995 and 2008--public transportation use actually grew 38% in the same period, while the overall U.S. population grew just 14%, according to the 2009 Fact Book of the American Public Transportation Association [p. 11])

So it was interesting, as I was clickety-clacking my way across New York state on the "Maple Leaf" train, to see the current issue of Amtrak's "New York by Rail" magazine also noting the way that train travel seems to go in two directions at once. "Rail journeys on Amtrak are great for whisking you effortlessly from point A to point B," the magazine says in a page about "Scenic Railroads." That is, trains are an everyday, consequential mode of travel (and maybe close to an ideal one in many ways, combining high degrees of relative mobility, comfort, and accessibility). But our shift into automobility in the early 20th century marooned many passenger and freight routes in the past, where many of them have been re-framed as heritage. The magazine goes on, "Tourist railroads, on the other hand, offer a slower-paced journey specifically intended to bring you close to scenic vistas and historic sites." The article points out the appeal of vintage rolling stock, refurbished depots, historic locomotives, and rail museums along the many tourist railroad routes in New York.

As I noted in an earlier post about Pennsylvania's oil heritage area, these tourist railroads are deeply and somewhat weirdly entangled in car culture, since the usual pattern is to drive to the station, take the train, and then drive away again. Tourist trains don't go from Point A to Point B--they go from Point A to Point A, in a self-referential loop rather than a consequential journey. But they do hold something in public memory of the earlier extent of American rail networks, and in a time when we may actually be moving in that direction again, these symbolic journeys exist on the unstable edge of the past/present relationship rather than simply as nostalgic representations of the obsolete. We can hope.

The Amtrak route across New York offers plenty of opportunities to contemplate the shifting relationship among different modes of transportation. At various places, particularly where the Mohawk Valley narrows, you can sit on the train and see the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal that parallels it (the straighter, lighter-green band), and roads large and small, including of course the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90 on the map). The image above shows all of these sharing space in the valley just west of Canajoharie, in the same neck of the woods as the early 20th century postcard at the top of this post. (The railroad tracks are the light gray line just below NY Route 5.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pilgrims and Progress (on Petroleum)

A dark and rainy day it is for the launch of a cross-country centennial reenactment of Alice Ramsey's 41-day drive across the U.S. in a 1909 Maxwell touring car. Ramsey was a 22-year-old Vassar graduate and avocational car racer who undertook the 3,800 mile trip in part to prove that a woman was capable of matching the feat already accomplished by numerous men in the previous six years and in part as a publicity campaign for the Maxwell car company (which was subsumed in the Chrysler company in the 1920s). A real-life version of the plucky girl motorists whose adventures formed the basis of a sub-genre of kidlit in the early 20th century, Ramsey lived until 1983, and published her own narrative about her trip, called "Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron," in 1961.

The centennial project was initiated by an antique car buff from Washington State, Dr. Richard Anderson, who recruited his daughter Emily to take the role of Alice Ramsey in the cross-country drive. The route will largely follow the 1909 itinerary, with due alterations for changes in the road system and without the hazards of the unpaved roads of early 20th century America (as seen above). Part of this route follows what would become, in 1913, the Lincoln Highway, a kind of prototype for the later Interstate system. (Click here for the original Lincoln Highway route. The Lincoln Highway Association's own annual conference in South Bend, Indiana will be a stop on the Ramsey/Anderson trip.)

All of this gives me lots of food for thought, too much for a single blog post. As my colleague David Glassberg put it yesterday in discussion about automobility and heritage at the Mass. History Conference, "the auto is deeply woven into the DNA of historic sites" because road-building, automobile-promotion, and way-marking projects have so often overlapped with each other, right from the earliest days of the car. It's a process that continues in the heritage area movement, which ties whole regions together thematically and creates auto, bike, boat, and pedestrian routes through them. This is a history I hope to be exploring more deeply as I get further into my cars and heritage research.

On this rainy Tuesday morning, though, what I'm mostly thinking about is how the symbolic resonance of the journey reflects various human conceptions of progress and achievement, whether that means escaping the cycle of reincarnation, visiting the axis mundi, becoming the first woman to cross a continent by car, or overcoming cancer. This notion of moving toward something better or more transcendent is of course the basis for pilgrimage, which has a very long history. Theoretically, the liminal qualities of movement and travel always open up some space for reflection and some potential for transformation. It's surely no coincidence that Emily Anderson, who is taking the role of Alice Ramsey in the centennial journey, is a professional event manager for a company that designs fundraising walks and other events for non-profit organizations (for example, three-day breast cancer walks).

So how do we understand a pilgrimage in a petroleum-powered car at a time when you can make a case that the resonance of both cars and petroleum is tinged with as much gloom as hope? There are lots of indications that the Ramsey reenactment crew is thinking about transformation on both personal and social levels (Emily Anderson chose Women for Women International as the beneficiary of any proceeds from the drive, making the connection between the mobility and opportunities open to some women but closed to others). But there's no sign that the project is encouraging anyone to think about transforming our automobile or petroleum use, which makes me suspect that this may be another of those efforts, like the Sharon Welcome Center in Vermont, that promotes positive social change in one direction while masking its own close ties to a culture of automobility that continues to have less-than-positive social and environmental implications. This seems to be another way of "progressing" (literally and symbolically) without necessarily questioning the costs of the "progress" we've already made.

I may be wrong about the potential for reflection on all of this in the Ramsey re-creation, and maybe it's just the gloom of the dark morning that's getting to me! Surprising things can always happen on the road. As a reality check, though, I just want to note another news story today: a long-awaited resolution in a legal case against Shell Oil for its complicity in the 1995 execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who were protesting the environmental degradation caused by the operation of foreign oil companies in the Niger delta. Shell agreed to a $15.5 million settlement, a mere drop of its overall profits but an important precedent for human rights groups looking for ways to hold multinational corporations accountable. $5 million of the settlement will be used to set up an educational foundation in the delta region. In the Gokana language spoken by the Ogoni, the name of the trust, Kiisi, means "progress."