Smithsonian exhibit explores America's life on the road

From pavement to rails, visitors experience history, not the museum

November 22, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Americans have been whooshing from place to place for more than a century, in ever-increasing numbers and at ever-increasing speeds. Beginning today, those who whoosh their way to Washington's Smithsonian Institution can see just where they've been going, how they've been getting there and why any of that makes any difference.

Step inside the National Museum of American History, and visitors will find themselves strolling down a genuine piece of blacktop from the fabled Route 66, "riding" a car on Chicago's elevated line in December 1959, listening in as a traveler tries to rent a tourist cabin at a Laurel-area motor court in the 1930s or experiencing the tumult surrounding the New York City docks in the 1920s.

America on the Move, at 26,000 square feet the largest exhibit ever mounted by the Smithsonian, opens at noon today at the NMAH, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue. Its 300-plus artifacts, everything from a train engine to a driver's license, do more than simply chronicle the evolution of American transportation. They explain how all that movement has shaped this nation's history, affected its people and necessitated changes both good and bad.

"Mobility is a defining experience in American life," NMAH director Brent D. Glass said during a preview of the exhibit earlier this week, as visitors wove their way through a reconfigured museum wing (until recently, it housed the Smithsonian's Road & Rails Hall) broken into 19 components. Each is set in a specific place at a specific time, beginning with Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1876 and ending with Los Angeles in 1999, and displays artifacts and text that follow the development of ground-level transportation from the coming of the railroad to the information superhighway.

The exhibit "shows how much transportation has sculpted our lives over the last century," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Initial funding of America on the Move included a $3 million congressional appropriation administered through the Department of Transportation.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibit opens with the arrival of the railroad in Santa Cruz in 1876. At its center is the Philadelphia-built steam engine Jupiter, glistening in its new home (an improvement, no doubt, over its former life as part of a D.C.-area playground).

The Jupiter and its story - it operated on 15 miles of track laid by the Santa Cruz Railroad - is typical of what happened in towns throughout the United States at the time, as civic leaders, anxious to avail themselves of the riches that inevitably accompanied the arrival of the iron horse, raised whatever money was necessary and moved whatever earth needed to be moved to make that happen. Here, they envisioned the railroad helping Santa Cruz challenge San Francisco for commercial dominance; that never happened, but the railroad, which connected with the far-larger Union Pacific, did prove vital to farmers trying to move their crops.

Throughout America on the Move, curators have done their best to put history into some sort of context, to do more than simply put objects on display and explain what they are. A display showing a 1903 cross-country auto trek, accomplished at a time when paved roads were pretty much non-existent, is as much about what that sort of mobility would mean to the average American as about the trip itself.

Keep moving through the exhibit and a Model-T Ford comes into view. But rather than simply display it on the floor, the curators have put it on a "turn-auto," a mechanical device used by early-day car repairmen who didn't have the benefit of hydraulic lifts, but had to figure a way to work underneath derelict automobiles. America on the Move could almost as easily have been called "Necessity as the Mother of Invention," as the exhibit clearly demonstrates how each advance in transportation spurred the creation of associated products.

In fact, looking at the bigger picture is really what the exhibit is all about, says Janet Davidson, the exhibition's curator and co-author of the companion book, On the Move: Transportation and the American Story.

As a frequent visitor to the Smithsonian, Davidson notes, she had often looked at the 1903 Winston Touring Car that made that first transcontinental journey, but never understood the full story. "If you had told me then that this was the first car to cross the country, that would have been big news," she says.

The car's significance went ever further, Davidson notes. "For many people, especially in the West, it was the first car they had ever seen," she says. Seeing it, people began thinking that such horseless carriages "actually would be useful," rather than just a novelty. In a very real sense, this little touring car helped start a billion-dollar industry.

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