Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Got a Question For Ya...

What does the Super Bowl have to do with historic preservation and museum collections?
My answer: more than you'd think.

I would love to say that I watched the Super Bowl this past weekend, with fingers turned orange from Dorito dust and hair matted under a wedge of foam-rubber cheese, but alas, I'm not much for professional football.  I did, however, catch some of the commercials and was especially impressed (like many others) with the poignant ad for the new Chrysler 200.

As a native Detroiter, living well outside of the mitten at the moment, I find vignettes like these tug at my heart strings very easily.  Once the goosebumps and the thrill of landmark recognition passed, I began to consider the commercial more critically (because I'm a grad student and that's what we're conditioned to do).

After reviewing the Monday morning roundup of commercials, I was most struck by the contributions from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  At present, a link to the Chrysler ad and accompanying article is prominently displayed on their homepage.

Yes, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had something to say about a rapper's attempt to hawk mid-sized sedans.  Notably, they said this:

Let me be upfront: I realize this is not a commercial about historic preservation. And whether or not Chrysler genuinely loves Detroit and its struggling stock of historic treasures is irrelevant because, at the end of the day, they have a very clear bottom line: Sell cars. I get it. However, in my eyes, the ad clearly linked preservation to progress — to the rebirth of a city that “has been to Hell and back.” The screen capture of Eminem in front of the restored and insanely gorgeous Fox Theater with “Keep Detroit Beautiful” glowing on the marquee says it all. Cue the choir (of course there was a choir!) and you’ve got water works.
I also found the overall look and feel of the commercial to be deeply moving. For me, it showed that cities are alive — and can die. And the juxtaposition of progress and the city’s real but often sensationalized ruins was beyond poignant. Yes, moving inventory is critical to Detroit’s recovery, but so is historic preservation.
(Read the entire article here.)

For Michiganders, I felt this point was an obvious one-- of course Detroit needs historic preservation.  We've all been heartbroken, watching beautiful and historic buildings decay before our very eyes.  So much of what is seen in the news is the dilapidated, abandoned Detroit.  I was a little offended that the author of this article seemed surprised that Detroit has something worth keeping.  But that aside, I very much like the idea that the city's recovery is dependent on historic preservation as well as car sales and I was impressed that the ad seemed to highlight the preservation efforts that have already been successful within the city.

Fox Theater
There were images of the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA, which not only capture iconic images of the auto industry, but are also one of Detroits points of pride.  There were also images of historic downtown buildings that have been flawlessly preserved for decades (That is the part of Detroit with which I am most familiar). There was also the Joe Louis memorial, The Spirit of Detroit, and shots of our historic churches.  Most notably, there was the Fox Theater.  Arguably one of the most stunning buildings in the city, the Fox underwent a $12 million restoration in 1988 and is still sparkling.

I think it's rather symbolic that the ad culminates at the Fox Theater.  In a way, highlighting the success of this historic preservation project represents what could happen all over the city.

Fox Theater
But the message on the marquee of the Fox Theater read like a call to action for historic preservationists: KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL.  The author of the NTHP article finished by saying "I couldn’t agree more. Americans are capable of making — and saving — great things."

Indeed!  And what acts as a testament to that assertion better than a museum?

Those final thoughts bring to mind an object I saw while at The Henry Ford this past December.  My dad and I spent a great day in the Henry Ford Museum while I was home in Michigan for the semester break and after our visit, we both agreed that our favorite object on view in the museum was a set of Johansson gauge blocks.

I had never heard of such a tool before we saw them at the museum.  I can't explain the science behind them any better than Wikipedia, but I thought the way they were exhibited and interpreted in the context of the museum was just great.

Johansson Gauge Blocks
Sure, they don't look like much.  In fact, I would have walked right past them except that they were alone in a display case all their own.  Something clicked in the museum-awareness part of my brain and said, "This must be important!"  And sure enough, they were.  These blocks essentially represent the entire Detroit automotive industry.

Henry Ford used these instruments because their precision in measurements allowed Model Ts to be assembled without employing "fitters" (people needed to adjust individual parts so that they fit together correctly), which saved money but also further contributed to Ford's efficiency in mass production.  The same mass production assembly line that allowed the automotive industry to take off in Detroit and centuries later, inspired Super Bowl commercials.

Eminem said, "This is Detroit and this [make cars] is what we do".  Well, "this" is what we do because of these gauge blocks.

The above pictured set of blocks is not Ford's own.  His set is not metric and is engraved with his name on every single block.  Ford's personal set of Johansson gauge blocks is impeccably preserved and on display in the Model T exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.

Indeed, Americans are capable of making and saving great things.

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