Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 24 - Detroit

By now it’s pretty clear that one of the two courses that make up this 40/40 trip is a sociology course. I try to, from time to time, mention different discussions we have and points of the numerous sociological analyses that we make each day. But that’s only half of the material.

Our other course is in travel writing. In addition to the three required books and two suggested books (of which I’ve only had time to read one so far), we’ve been given 30 writing prompts, 15 of which we need to address sometime in one of our daily blogs. I started out doing my blogs in a chronological day-by-day format, trying to objectively cover the events of the day, but somewhere along the line it’s become more thematic than chronological.

Thematic is good, in this situation; having a theme makes it easier to have a focal point for each blog post and enables me to more clearly address a prompt. So, after a few words on Detroit, I’m going to go into a discourse on civil disobedience. (I know that sounds random, but just wait….I’ll connect all the dots.)

This morning we visited the Henry Ford Museum. After a long tour of the Indianapolis Speedway yesterday I was less than motivated to get up this morning only to endure what I thought was going to be another less-than-exhilarating discourse on vehicle memorabilia. Much to my delight, I only needed to take one step into the Ford Museum to realize that I had been gravely mistaken.

We’ve visited several museums, monuments, and galleries over the past 24 days, but none of them has engaged and inspired me as this experience did today. I must say that my visit to the Henry Ford Museum is the very best museum experience I have ever, ever, had. Ever.

Henry Ford sets itself apart from its counterparts in numerous ways:

  1. Visitors to the Ford Museum aren't treated like a herd of sheeple. There are a minimum of ropes, rails, and other encumbering barriers to protect the exhibits; this minimalist approach provides patrons with an inherently superior visit than they would have at any of the incredibly uptight museums around the country. You really get to get in there and experience history at Henry Ford. (And honestly, if there ever was a museum that had good reason to keep people a football field away from an exhibit, it’s the Ford Museum. I got to walk around and sit in the courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Springfield, Illinois before being elected as President! This building, along with many other originals—such as the Firestone family house, the Wright brothers’ home, and Thomas Edison’s home—was bought by Ford and moved to his Greenfield Village adjacent to the museum.)

  1. Exhibits demonstrate a markedly obvious emphasis on clarity and communication rather than the miniscule details that only your history professor would find immensely interesting. Sometimes I go into museums and wonder if the historians ever took their audience into consideration while dreaming up and constructing the crazy exhibits before me. Such was not the case here. I was especially impressed by the new “Liberty and Justice For All” exhibit focusing on the history of Americans’ fight for freedom—starting with the founding fathers and ending somewhere after the Civil Rights Movement. This elegant multi-room exposition used video; short, simple paragraphs; photographs; sketches; sound recording; light shows; giant timelines; and music to convey a story—a beautiful story that could easily be followed by even grade school children.

  1. Unlike many museums, the Ford Museum shares both sides of the story. There was no political or social agenda; the exhibits did a great job of presenting both the good and bad of American history and culture.

  1. Instead of being singularly minded, Henry Ford was interested in all aspects of Americana. As our outstanding tour guide explained, Ford believed that the collection of items and tools we use every day are part of our own museum that we’ve created—they collectively tell the story of who we are. So Ford collected the everyday items of Americans throughout the years. The museum wasn’t even originally meant to be specifically a car museum. Greg (our guide) pointed out that when the museum was built in 1929 there was not much car history to speak of. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that the car became an iconic element of American life.

I am so excited to visit again soon. As everyone drifted into the café about half-way through our visit, I called my dad to tell him that we MUST come here on our next family vacation. I can’t wait to share this amazing experience with my brothers and sisters!

As I promised, here’s the prompt:

From Thoreau to King to Rosa Parks to contemporary protest movements, civil disobedience has been a strong theme in American life. Have you seen anything that would inspire you to commit an act of civil disobedience?

This morning at the Ford Museum I was surprised to find the original Rosa Parks bus on display -- the one in which she refused to give up her seat to a white person in 1955. I was even more surprised when a museum employee came up to me and told me to go on inside it. There was no one else around as I quietly, reverently, stepped onto the sleek 1950’s bus. I started to get goosebumps and was moved almost to tears as I sat there, alone, and listened to a recording of Ms. Parks sharing her experienced. “This is the moment that marked the beginning of an entire movement,” I thought. Since visiting Central High School in Little Rock, breaking bread with Navajos, and sitting quietly through an LGBT film, I’ve realized that racism is real and Americans today are still affected by it. The civil rights movement of today is being fought for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

Thinking back on some of the video I saw at the Central High School museum, I remember growing tense and frustrated as I watched entire crowds of white parents and students gather around, jeering and throwing bricks as the black students emerged from the building. That is something that would provoke me to commit an act of civil disobedience. I don’t know exactly what it would be, but it would be contrary to what would have been expected of me as a young white woman in the South. I couldn’t sit by and watch something like that take place, no matter what the current popular thought suggested.


  1. Nice, Shirah. From what I know of you, I'm not surprised at this conclusion. One of the things that lurks underneath this post is the provocative point you make about particular choices musuems/historical sites make to present a "story." Just as writers make choices in their compositions, historical sites choose whether and how to represent certain voices, facts, realities. I often wonder what's in the archive, what's gathering dust in some closet somewhere, and might those dusty artifacts inspire civil disobedience or complacency or something else?

  2. Cool beans Shirah! I laughed when I read "sheeple".

    but I thought that you should know the civil rights movement today is not only being fought by those associated with LGBT related issues, but that most anyone who isn't a straighit white male still has a large gap to close before we actually reach any real sense of equality on a large scale.

  3. Shirah, you have unwittingly connected some unexpected dots. Sheeple, as you have so deftly coined it, are in fact the root of many of our societal woes - historically as well as currently. The ones jeering and throwing rocks were sheeple, just as today, the ones sporting their bling and boasting of their exploits are sheeple.

    Your reference was, of course, to a case of some treating others like sheeple, but unfortunately we most often make that choice for ourselves. We prefer the sheeple life because the risks are lower, and approval is cheaper --and we don't have to think so much.

    Civil obedience and conformance are virtues only if their origins lie in an intelligent heartfelt conviction of what is true and right and good. They are the free thinkers, not the sheeple, who are free to act disobediently at the point of conflict between their own convictions and the prevailing societal norms.

  4. thank you michael savage for 'sheeple' haha! good use of the word, s;)!

    as for gays and lesbians being this generations civil rights fight, i must say i disagree. it seems to be very common for people to equate or compare the two, but i think they're very much different.

    while gays & lesbians are pursuing equal rights which you know i'm all for), their situation does not even compare to the struggle african americans endured. are gays or transgendered people being lynched in the streets? are they being enslaved? are they confined to drinking from certain water fountains or barred from certain neighborhoods? of course not. the severity of what african americans went through...it was life or death for them. for LGBT, this is just not the case unless perhaps they are in countries such as Iran or Iraq, where your life will most likely be in jeopardy for being gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual.

    good analysis...i just had to add my 2 cents since you said you wanted feedback;).

    love ya! w


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