Last summer at the Menlo Park Laboratory complex in Greenfield Village, I heard my 10-year-old son gasp when peering into the small room where inventors tested filaments for the incandescent light. When he learned that Thomas Edison made more than 10,000 attempts before successfully using carbon, it led to us to talk a little about determination, and the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed …” He said, “That’s something new to think about when I flip on the light switch.”
For moments like that, and too many others to count, I appreciate the remarkable place that is The Henry Ford.
To begin with, it’s a fun place to go. If you’re a kid – there’s a lot of awesome stuff to see, do, get your hands on and learn from. If you’re an adult, there’s history and nostalgia to be had at every turn. The element of wonder and a steady stream of a-ha moments for our family never seem to end, even though we’ve visited many times.
At Greenfield Village, you can ride a train pulled by a 19th century steam engine; watch skilled artisans and masters create beautiful pieces of glass, pottery, textiles and tin; take a drive in the Model T chauffeured by a knowledgeable driver; step inside the buildings where Orville and Wilbur Wright lived, worked and built their first airplane; take a turn on a beautiful antique carousel, enjoy a historically inspired meal, and get a glimpse of the daily life of farmers, tradesmen, workers, teachers, students, inventors and more.
The vast Henry Ford Museum is a visual delight – organized into meaningful and inspiring exhibits using artifacts to tell the stories of those who made and those who enjoyed American innovations in aviation, domestic life and industry.
The expansive Driving America exhibition is as much about us as it is about the automobile: how we use them – and how we love them. This exhibition is chock full of some engaging hands-on and digitally interactive tools.
My littlest ones love working in the Texaco Station, visiting the huge trains and the build-and-play areas.
The multi-sensory tour of automotive and industrial innovation on the Ford Rouge Factory Tour takes visitors from the beginning of the Mighty Rouge to present day and beyond. The living roof on the plant has even prompted some creative eco-friendly garden experiments at our house.
Amid artifacts and stories of industry, ingenuity and know-how are stirring accounts of courage and social innovation. The ability to get an up-close look at the chair in which President Abraham Lincoln sat when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, is nothing short of profound, as is standing near the limousine President John F. Kennedy rode when he shot. Then there’s the opportunity to climb aboard the bus where Rosa Parks courageously resolved to keep her seat. Sitting on that bus places you inside that historic moment unlike any other museum experience.
I recently learned that Henry Ford started to amass the collection of treasures – that are now The Henry Ford – to prove a point. His claim was that in order to impact the future, the past had to be taught differently. Learning from a history that was just described or listed in books wasn’t going to cut it.
He set on a quest to document the genius of ordinary folks – some of whom have been recognized for accomplishing extraordinary things. He wanted to tell their stories with the very objects they used in their every day lives. He believed to look ahead, you had to look back. Part of his vision was for others to experience, discover and learn from the actual artifacts that fueled American innovation. In the 1920s, Henry Ford’s idea to share his collections in the form of the Edison Institute (now The Henry Ford) was very unusual and revolutionary.
I have to say, my own experiences at The Henry Ford have given me something to think about when I get on a plane or in a car, turn on the stove, answer the phone, listen to my iPod, plug something in, eat a peanut, take my kids to school, cast my vote, collect my pay, educate my children and – like my son said – flip on that light switch. The conveniences of our time didn’t happen overnight, and the stories behind them are ripe with inspiration. I know our visits always fuel fodder for the inventive minds living under our roof, and discussions are already underway planning what events we’ll attend during the long-awaited summer months (with Maker Faire Detroit topping the list).
I’d say Henry Ford proved his point, and people of all ages continue to enjoy experiencing history differently because of his vision.
So, on behalf of the millions of people who have visited The Henry Ford over these past 84 years, let me just say, “Thank you Henry!”