Dynamist Blog

Cars Without Glamour

On a reporting trip to Detroit last week, I spent a spare hour (or, to judge from the parking ticket I got, a bit longer) at the Detroit Historical Museum. I was there to see a well-mounted exhibit of Supremes costumes from the collection of trio member Mary Wilson.

But while I was there, I naturally checked out the permanent exhibit on Detroit as "Motor City." I may be making too much of a single example, but the contrast between the Detroit exhibit and those I recently visited at the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A. suggests a lot about what ails the Big Three. The Petersen is full of gorgeous automobiles. In Detroit, there was nary a car in sight. The car buyer barely seemed to exist. Cars had no glamour and no cultural significance. And car companies seemed to operate solely to provide jobs, attract people to Detroit, and spur the union movement. Nothing in the exhibit made you want a car. (The few vehicles on display were decidedly unattractive.)

At the Petersen, by contrast, the history--and there's plenty of it--is about innovation and social transformation. The car is a work of art and a source of personal expression. In California, cars are fun (despite all the traffic). In Detroit, they're drab artifacts of a black-and-white past. To be fair, the Ford and Chrysler museums do have cars on display; I just didn't have time for an extended museum tour. But you have to wonder about a Motor City that doesn't take every opportunity to demonstrate the appeal of cars.

By contrast, the Supremes exhibit, which included lots of Motown Records and civil rights history, not only showed the dresses (arranged on mannequins whose hand gestures were distinctively Supreme) but also played the music. It demonstrated why the Supremes were glamorous and successful. But it was organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not the Detroit museum.

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