Conservation of big stuff at the Henry Ford: Past, present, and future

Clara Deck


Henry Ford’s acute personal interest in restoring his “treasures” inspired astonishing exhibits that have attracted visitors for 75 years. His museum, including the 80 historic sites in the Greenfield Village “history park”, was Ford’s obsession from the 1920s until his death in 1947. He acquired enormous collections of Americana but it was in collecting and restoring technological and transportation artifacts that he was a pioneer. His resources for acquiring huge collections seem to have been almost limitless. His drive to restore objects demanded his individual attention even while he was at the helm of one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturing companies. His approach to restoration was sometimes idiosyncratic since he mistrusted intellectuals.

Today Ford’s legacy is an institution (now called The Henry Ford) with a consciously maverick approach to public program development. It is a dynamic “history attraction” with huge unique artifacts and vast numbers of collections. We actively use hundreds of antique collections every day. This paper explores the stewardship of key industrial artifacts at The Henry Ford, especially steam engines, from the days of our foundation to the present. It shows how Ford’s involvement has had a lasting effect our current approach to stewardship. Conservators at THF recognize the rewards and drawbacks inherent in the conflict between using and preserving collections and in so doing we embrace the complex challenges of caring for large industrial collections. Our approach to this dichotomy has been built on Ford’s legacy with the goal of creating successful preservation strategies that champion the ethical stewardship and responsible use of the collections.

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2006 | Providence | Volume 13