Thursday, August 4, 2011

Museum material culture

Harley Davidson Museum, Milwaukee. All photos courtesy the author.

We finally broke down and visited the Harley-Davidson Museum in downtown Milwaukee.

It's astonishing how the area has been transformed--beautiful pathways and native prairie plantings bordering the Menominee River. Loads of parking for bikes and cars.

Sculpture. Enough said.

Why--WHY--are bronze statues so awful? No wonder people hate public art. This image of a hill racer recalls a fantastic interactive computer program in the Museum where you can pick your hill, sprocket shape and speed and see if your cartoon effigy makes it up the hill. This guy--he's going down, his bike will smack him in the head and boom, early retirement.

Earliest H-D motorcycles.

I loved all the different bikes. Evidently a few other companies were making bikes before Harley--Indian, Pope--but Harley was the first one to do motorcycles only, not bicycles first.

Wall of tanks.

And the designers know either the Vitra Museum or Andreas Gursky. Gorgeous!

Prettiest tank!

They changed graphics, colors and models every year, starting almost from the beginning.

Founders: three Davidsons, one Harley.

Loved this old picture. Their display of material culture was pretty beautiful. I was rather dreading how gear-headed the descriptions could have been, but there was a lot to enjoy without being a "knucklehead".

Typical museum-goers.

Ya baby, lots of Harley owners there. They've got their own vocabulary. Have they heard of wife-beaters, or is this where the phrase comes from?

Cool petroglyph.

Gorgeous use of varied graphic design.

Engines on wall.

Again, Vitra.

Museum design.

Lovely display of objects--how to enliven things that do not change dramatically?

Mod motor oil ad.

They tried to hip it up in the 70s--perhaps this is when their marketing lost track of their audience?

Harley wedding dress.

Enough said.

Album covers.

I loved that Minnie Pearl did an album cover on a Harley.

There was not much about the later years--the virtual bankruptcy, the Jay Leno effect--which leaves the story still storybook. But I suppose real Harley people know it--in any case, it was an elegant space with groovy objects.

I was willing to go to the Harley Museum because of a shift in my thinking when Kevin had to shoot the 100th anniversary parade. I came to discern the different bike shapes--I'm an Indian woman myself--and the different sub-cultures of riders.

Categories I counted:

gay couples (over 10)
mixed-race couples (almost 5)
woman driving man (1)
Japanese couple (1)
people standing on their bikes (4)
wedding dresses (3)

The other hundreds of riders who made it into the anniversary parade were as you might suspect--Grateful Dead look-alikes with their molls on the back. But I was still surprised by the diversity where I thought there would be none.

Harley is an American success story--none of the founders were from here, they started off in a 10 x 15' shack and became a global phenomenon. As bad as gas is, motorcycles and cars still freed people from their farms, their families and their futures by letting them run away and create a new life. That's something to celebrate, and Milwaukee had a role in that.

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