As curators, we devote much of our time and energy to studying objects—who made them and why, when and where they were made, and how they represent certain ideas, events, and people. When we decided to choose and write about 12 iconic objects from our collection for this year’s Pic of the Month feature, we had to consider what makes an object truly iconic. In the end, we came up with three criteria that we felt needed to be present in every one of our choices: national significance, uniqueness to our institution, andresonance to museum visitors.
Using these three criteria, we start our series by exploring what is iconic about 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. Inside this bus on that day, 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. She was neither the first African American nor the first woman to challenge the segregation laws within a public transportation system. But her flawless character, her quiet strength, and her moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others. When she was arrested, the African-American community knew that, this time, city officials had “messed with the wrong one.”
This simple, courageous act of protest by Rosa Parks led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott by the African-American community. For this reason, many people consider it to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement. The arrest of Rosa Parks and the resulting bus boycott also led to the meteoric rise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the widely recognized leader of this movement. Over time, Rosa Parks came to be known internationally as a symbol for human rights.
A Symbol of “Social Innovation”
The Museum’s re-envisioned mission statement in the 1990s called out innovation, resourcefulness, and ingenuity as specific lenses through which to focus our collections and interpretation. Technological innovation, we found, was relatively easy to define and relate to our existing collections. The idea of social innovation was more elusive, but the Rosa Parks bus seemed to perfectly embody this notion—the notion that a new idea or a new way of doing things can have such far-reaching impact that it renders old ways obsolete and radically alters how people think about themselves, their interactions with others, and the larger world.
The bus, restored to its appearance when Rosa Parks sat in it, ultimately found its home in the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition. The Museum uses the bus to represent the particular story of Rosa Parks within the broader context of the Civil Rights movement. Visitors can board and sit on the bus, feel what it was like for Rosa Parks on that day, and hear an actual recounting of the event by Rosa Parks herself.
This bus would likely be considered iconic if it had been collected and displayed at another museum or even if it was still sitting neglected out in the field of its last private owner. But, by the very nature of its particular rationale in collecting, restoring, and interpreting the bus, The Henry Ford has imbued this icon with a prominence, aesthetic, and interpretive narrative that are unique.
Personal Encounters with the Bus
A visitor evaluation that was implemented in the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition revealed that the Rosa Parks bus was not only the most visited area in the entire exhibition but also that it was mentioned more than any other exhibit feature in answer to the question, “What was the most memorable part of the exhibition for you?” Responses revealed a wide range of opinions, from the fact that it is an inspiring, powerful story, to its ability to trigger powerful personal memories about the Civil Rights movement, to the idea that the bus is, quite simply, the “real deal.”
To be truly iconic, objects must be able to imbue their power on succeeding generations—museum visitors who have no direct memory of the people or events to which the object was originally connected. Indeed, younger audiences continue to be inspired by the bus, its relevance, and its ability to transport them back in time. These comments came from three different 10th graders who visited “With Liberty and Justice for All”:
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…
It just felt so surreal to be in a place where someone fifty years ago changed history…
…going on the Rosa Parks bus is…one of the only ways to really get a…feel for what the people in our past had to go through every day to get us to where we are now…
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as a Pic of the Month in January 2012.