Remember the last scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”; a vast warehouse jammed with sealed wooden crates stretching as far as the eye can see? When you think of the term ‘museum’, is this the image that pops up first?
Sadly, for some folks today, the ‘dusty warehouse’ label applies to many cultural institutions, especially if they’ve never taken the opportunity to visit. Perhaps their preconceived notions hearken back to a time over a century ago, where museums were repositories for items of great historical or cultural significance, populated by wooly-headed scholars, researchers, and well-to-do connoisseurs. They were largely a province of society’s elite.
With the passage of time, wise administrators understood that museums could be a wonderful resource for the surrounding community, not only serving to educate and entertain, but becoming a point of civic pride as well. The collective doors were thrown open, with the public invited to participate in educational programs, lectures, tours, and special exhibitions. The ‘dust’ began to fall away.
By the time Fred Crawford began to amass a serious collection of antique automobiles around the mid-1940’s, the notion of creating a museum for the enjoyment of the public was well established. Since Mr. Crawford was the president of Thompson Products, the resources of the huge corporation were brought to bear on creating one of the first automobile museums in the United States, repurposing a former Cadillac dealership in downtown Cleveland. Twenty years later, with the dealership lease expiring, plans were put in motion to transfer the growing collection to a purpose-built facility within the grounds of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum opened in September of 1965, and has been in continuous operation since then.
The museum houses a world-class collection of around one hundred and seventy automobiles, aircraft, and motorcycles, as well as a plethora of related support materials. Visitors can examine in detail cars that were produced at the dawn of powered personal transportation, through the Classic or Golden Age of automobile design, right up to the present with autonomously piloted vehicles.
A pressing issue for nearly all museums today is how to address the visitor’s question of ‘I’ve seen it once, why go back?’ (A valid yet troubling inquiry). Museums can no longer function as remote, elevated, or exclusive bastions of preservation of the past. They must remain current, engaging their visitors with ever-changing exhibits, programs and offerings to keep the experience fresh.
The Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum has taken this mission to heart, and is continually striving to elevate the quality of time the visitor spends. One might ask about the relevance of a gallery filled with antique cars; they were built so long ago that there is no current point of connection to them. Perhaps, but as exemplified by the Crawford’s latest exhibition, ‘Electric, Steam, or Gasoline’, visitors became aware of Cleveland’s significant past contributions to alternative power, anticipating innovations by manufacturers like Tesla by over a century. People were literally shocked by a late 1930’s Citroen that was powered by coal; something few even knew existed, and were wowed by the all-electric, ultra high-tech Chrysler Portal prototype which points the way to our future modes of transportation. Several of the alt-fuel vehicles were sourced from the Crawford’s permanent collection, and provided the viewer with insight as to how innovative thinkers decades ago influenced current design directions.
The Crawford experience can be very akin to listening to a delightful musical composition. If it resonates, one is prompted to go back to it over and over. So it is with a great museum; with each visit, something new and interesting can be gleaned, and our present is given definition and meaning by our past. The museum’s objects are touchstones to what has preceded us. Leave the dusty crates to the movies, and embrace the living and constantly evolving entity that is the Crawford. It will be time well spent!