Sunday, July 18, 2010

Still heritage, not history

This week's New York Times Auto section includes a piece that lists about a dozen automotive museums in and around Detroit, including several fairly venerable institutions founded by, or in honor of, or to house the collections of the American auto industry's great white patriarchal figures (Ford, Sloan, Olds, et al.).  Looking at the list, I was struck by how old-fashioned it all seems in terms of museology and historiography.  Most of these still appear to be essentially industry museums created by companies and hagiographers bent on celebrating invention and achievement, rather than industrial history museums taking a serious look at the very serious subject of cars in America.  They're heritage, not history.

I feel a bit funny saying this, because normally I argue against making too simple a distinction between the two, and I tend to be irked when professional historians use "heritage" to denigrate other kinds of history besides the kind they practice themselves.  But if this list is representative, our current view of automobility's past in the U.S. does seem stuck in a state that hasn't really been touched by the more questioning perspectives that a rigorous historical approach can bring.  There are certainly museums on this list that do work to move their collections in that direction, but the overriding impression I got from looking at the list and the websites of the museums themselves was that uncritical celebration and the veneration of the artifact still rule the day and that the "new social history" of the 1970s and later might as well not have happened as far as most of Detroit's car museums are concerned.

I'm actually not averse to exhibits that let people contemplate an artifact without a whole lot of interpretive apparatus to content with.  But so much of our culture is already set up to support that kind of uncritical, seemingly unmediated contemplation of and communion with automobiles.  It would be nice to see at least a little more sign that the museums of 2010 were working to create a counter-space for some different ways of seeing the car--and not just through the usual "here's the cool car of the future" endings to automobile exhibits, either. 

(I was also struck, looking at the list of inductees to the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, by the virtual absence of women.  I spotted only three among the nearly 350 names:  race car driver Shirley Muldowney of "Heart Like a Wheel" fame, driver and sportswriter Denise McCluggage, and our old friend Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the U.S.  If you want evidence of what a global Old Boys' Club the car industry is, look no farther!)

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