When does an object become an icon?
Our curators explored this question and came up with three criteria: national significance, uniqueness to our institution and resonance to museum visitors.
Each month this year, we will be exploring a different museum icon in our Pic of the Month web feature – starting with the Rosa Parks bus.
An Ordinary Bus Becomes Extraordinary
One would not ordinarily consider a city bus to be iconic. But an extraordinary event occurred on this Montgomery, Alabama, bus on December 1, 1955, when a soft-spoken African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, as dictated by existing segregation laws.
This simple, courageous act of protest led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott by the African-American community and the meteoric rise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the widely-recognized leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Over time, Rosa Parks came to be known internationally as a symbol for human rights.
A Symbol of “Social Innovation”
By our particular rationale in collecting and interpreting the Rosa Parks bus, we have imbued it with a unique prominence, aesthetic and interpretation.
Our re-envisioned mission statement in the 1990s called out innovation, resourcefulness and ingenuity as specific lenses through which to focus our collections and interpretation. The Rosa Parks bus, acquired in October 2001, seemed to perfectly embody the elusive notion of social – as opposed to technological – innovation.
The bus was ultimately placed in our “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition, where the topic of social innovation finally found a home in Henry Ford Museum alongside technological innovation. Here, visitors can sit on the bus and hear Rosa Parks herself recount what it was like on that day in 1955.
Personal Encounters with the Bus
A visitor evaluation in “With Liberty and Justice for All” revealed that the Rosa Parks bus was the most memorable object to the largest number of people.
Why is this?
Personal responses varied from ”it’s an inspiring, powerful story” to “it triggers powerful personal memories about the Civil Rights movement” to “it’s the ‘real deal.’” One 10th-grader remarked, “I really felt as though I was back in history, invisibly standing in the aisle watching Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat on that very bus.”
National significance. Institutional uniqueness. Personal resonance. These, to us, transform simple objects into icons.
What do you think?
Donna Braden is curator of public life at The Henry Ford; she enjoys reflecting on the intersections between objects, museum experiences and visitors.