The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village

A visit from my mother last week meant the perfect opportunity to visit the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, "America's Greatest History Attraction."

The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village have long been a favorite topic of discussion among bemused public history graduate students. Like the personality and legacy of their originator, the institution is a conglomerate of populism, boosterism and genuine ingenuity veiled with a touch of obfuscation. From the visitor's moment of entry, it is clear that this place is uncertain about its identity in the cultural heritage spectrum. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village are about as expensive to visit as a day spent at a 6 Flags theme park. No discounts are available for AAM members or museum employees, but members of the armed forces are duly honored with discounted admission. THF is about history, yes, but it is not afraid to compete in the global market as an "attraction," showing 3-d Hollywood movies in its IMAX theater while employing first-rate docents to explain key artifacts both in the museum exhibits and in the various planted properties in Greenfield Village.

The collection of objects, from the chair in which Lincoln was assassinated to a factory component Model T to a 16th century cottage from rural England is diverse beyond compare. And yet, the explanatory text is text-book-ish in the museum and downright shallow in the Village. Nowhere is Henry Ford's idiosyncratic vision spelled out. Without carefully reading the sparse signage in the village, it would be possible to imagine that there really was a Swiss chalet (reproduction) across the street from George Washington Carver's boyhood home.

Two exhibits rose above the rest-- the Mattox Family House in Greenfield Village and the Rosa Parks Bus in the "With Liberty and Justice for All" exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum. The Greenfield Village web tour does not do justice to the Mattox house, but luckily, a docent who was present when we visited represented the place beautifully. The Mattox Family House was built and inhabited by a family of freed slaves in Georgia. Of all the strangely transplanted homes in Greenfield Village, this one felt the most homey and "real" somehow. The docent was warm and knowledgeable and treated the space with a degree of respect appropriate for someone's home while placing the family's situation in historical context.

The Rosa Parks bus was the culmination of the museum's exhibit that attempted to trace the development of American democratic values. This remarkable artifact, restored to a splendor it most likely had not possessed since the day it rolled off the factory floor, with the aid of a Save America's Treasures grant, brought home the iconic Montgomery bus boycott in a way that no documentary or book ever could. When the docent explained the details of the segregated busing system in Alabama and Rosa Parks' quiet act of civil disobedience, there wasn't a dry eye on the bus.

Watching the kids around me, possibly learning about this history for the first time, I was struck by a question that dogs the public history field. Is it better to learn, from the start, the full context of a historical event with its political machinations and converging players (see Historical Thinking Matters Rosa Parks Inquiry) or is it better to know a key story that rises to legend status with moral/values implications? I think that's how most of us learn about Rosa Parks for the first time-- as if she were a single courageous entity defying an oppressive system and launching a mass movement in her wake--- and yet there were so many underlying current that led to the moment of her decision to break the law. I suppose that's the beauty in being exposed to the same story over and over again as you mature and look at the world differently. That's the beauty of having a museum exhibit that you can return to you with your family in the future...