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Smithsonian Showcases <i>America on the Move</i> - 2003-12-01

The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. has just opened its largest and most ambitious exhibit. America on the Move chronicles the evolution of ground transport in the United States, and the massive show, containing more than 300 historical items, is backed by an unusual coalition of government and private transportation industry donors.

With the ceremonial "hammering" of a gold spike into a replica railroad tie, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small joined U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta in officially opening the America on the Move exhibit. Mr. Small says the new show goes to the very heart of Americans' sense of independence.

"America on the Move explores what you have to call the essence of the American spirit. It explores the ambition, the drive, the curiosity and the determination that animates this country. It's about our almost genetic need as a people to explore, to go around the bend, to go over the hill and beyond the horizon. We do that every way you can think of: by car, by truck, by boat, by train. This is a country that always wanted to move. And this exhibit shows that in a very vivid, compelling way," he says.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta took special note of the exhibit's use of interactive audio and text stations which translate English descriptions into four other languages. He said transportation for the disabled is very much a part of the museum exhibition.

"Before this renovation, people who could not navigate stairs, used to have to wait for a guard to come and operate a lift before they could get near the '1401' locomotive. Now, a platform takes you right up to the side of it so that everyone can peer into its cab. The curators also created 3-D maps and drawings for the visually impaired," he says.

Visitors who stop by the huge Locomotive #1401 will hear a recorded conversation between the train engineer and fireman, as well as the steam "hissing" sound from 16 speakers placed along the 30-meter-long train. Janet Davidson, a Wales-born historian who completed her studies at the University of Delaware, is curator of the exhibit.

"We spent a lot of time in this exhibition thinking of sound. As you'll notice, this is a loud hall with lots of sound. We're really trying to engage your senses as well as your intellect through this exhibition," she says. "We hope that combination will really get people enthusiastic about American history, in the building and the subject in general."

In addition to visual and aural aspects of the exhibit, the Smithsonian curators also incorporate the odors of oranges and chocolate in "smell boxes" and the tactile feeling of an actual 12-meter portion of Highway Route 66 used on the floor.

The America on the Move exhibit also uses vignettes to tell its story: with 73 life-sized figures, as Ms. Davidson explains. "Every cast figure you see is based on a person or one we made up so we could think of what their story would be, what they were doing. It felt like writing a play in some ways, because of the 'back stories,' all of the attention to the surrounding detail," she says.

For example, curator Davidson says one exhibit set shows an actual motel cabin with a receptionist greeting a potential guest. "The man who's looking for a job at the 1939 Worlds Fair, he's stopping outside Laurel, Maryland at 'Rings Rest' for the night. She's trying to figure out if it's okay for her to rent him a cabin. In the mid-1930s, [FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover and the hotel industry suggested there was a fair amount of vice going on in small roadside tourist cabins. She's trying to screen out the 'hot pillow' trade because her father will not rent out a cabin to someone with a Virginia [license] plate, a Maryland or a D.C. plate," she says.

Smithsonian curator Laura Hansen says she designed one of the exhibits after meetinga resident of Martinsburg, Indiana, who remembered riding the school bus as a child and its unusual "heating system". "She's got bricks, what her neighbor used to give her because they didn't have a heater on the bus. They used to wrap bricks heated on the stove in newspaper, and she'd hold them during the ride to keep warm," she says.

The America on the Move exhibit highlights the growth of the automobile from a mechanical curiosity to an integral part of American life. It features the car used by Horatio Jackson in 1903, to complete the first cross-country auto journey.

Janet Davidson explains, saying "in 1903, it wasn't clear at all the car would be the technology that it became in the society. Its dominance wasn't a given: this car has no windshield, it's fragile, it's hard to drive, it broke down a lot. Today, it looks as if you'd kick it, it would tip over."

Another Smithsonian curator, Roger White, worked on a display about America's extensive highway system, featuring such historic roads as the cross-country interstate known as "Route 66" now, all but unused, but still a part of American culture. "Long distance highways were a new phenomenon in the 1920s. They gave individuals opportunities they didn't have with railroads. They opened frontiers and created situations where motorists could invent activities and roadside structures and businesses. You could make a livelihood on it, use it for pleasure trips, relocate your home," he says.

The Smithsonian exhibit also explores auto licensing, repair, gas stations, safety, and pollution. One corner of the hall recreates an auto dealership's sales floor, with a chipper salesman and a gullible couple, that Ms. Davidson says depicts another aspect of the transportation story.

"The defining characteristics of American society seemed the [population] baby boom, the end of [World] War [II], and the growing explosion of auto-mobility. This gives us a chance to show all that in one place," she says.

One of the most ambitious displays in the America on the Move exhibit is the one on the Chicago Transit Authority's subway system. Smithsonian curator Bonnie Lilienfeld and her team produced a short film that is projected within an actual subway car from the city's famed "Loop" transit system.

"You've just come up 23 feet to Chicago's elevated 'Loop' on December 15, 1959. We're at the Madison-Wabash station, and when you enter the train, you get to take a virtual trip around Chicago's 'Loop.' You can feel the train rattle with base shakers. We have copies of the original car advertisements here. The lights flicker, there's a Doppler Effect on the windows as the train goes by. The effect is that you're immersed in the experience of traveling around the Loop," she says.

Ms. Lilienfeld's description is soon drowned out by the "conductor's" stop announcements.

"We see a couple of women who work at the major department stores, Marshall Fields and Carson, Pirie, Scott. They talk about what it's like shopping in the stores"

And there's lots more on view: Hollywood's depiction of cars and trains, transportation and cargo containers, the Car Talk repair-advice radio show, even the proper etiquette of 1941 train behavior.

The new America on the Move show will not, itself, be moving. It is now a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.