The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (part of metropolitan Detroit) probably ranks among the best history museums in the United States. I have not been there since 2006, so it may have changed a bit since then.
Born in 1863, Henry Ford became famous for pioneering the concept of an assembly line. Using this concept, he created the Model T automobile, which became a bestseller. He helped make the first automobile that was affordable to the general public. His legacy continues today under the Ford Motor Company, which still makes Ford cars.
Due to his interest in inventions and innovations, Ford began collecting items that represented this interest. Eventually, his collection grew to become The Henry Ford Museum. After his childhood home was almost demolished, he saved it and moved it to an area right outside the Museum. This triggered an interest in moving and restoring other historically significant buildings from throughout the United States. Ultimately, this collection of historic buildings became Greenfield Village.
Today, tourists can visit the main Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and also take a Ford factory tour. Each of these places have their own admission prices, none of which are cheap. I have not done the factory tour, but have visited the other two locations.
The Henry Ford Museum is large, so I do not believe that I saw everything there. However, two exhibits stood out to me the most. The first was an automobile exhibit that contained a large variety of cars from throughout the 20th century, including some famous ones. For instance, the Lincoln Continental limousine that President John F. Kennedy rode when he got shot on November 22, 1963 is on display there.
The second exhibit that I vividly remember was called “With Liberty and Justice for All.” It provides a historical timeline of how people gained freedom in the United States, beginning with the American people gaining freedom from England during the Revolutionary War. The exhibit then proceeds with other movements, such as the Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. The former included a display about how women were often arrested for marching for their rights. Then, while in prison, they often attempted to continue their protests by going on hunger strikes. In response to this, the authorities would forcefully feed the women by using tubes to stuff food down their throats. On August 18, 1920, it will be 100 years since women throughout the entire United States gained the right to vote.
Another part of the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit featured the African American Civil Rights movement. This exhibit included the chair from Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., which President Abraham Lincoln sat on when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. However, in my opinion, the exhibit’s highlight was the Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks famously rode. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white passenger. This led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, in which African Americans decided to stop using the Montgomery buses as a form of protest to their unequal treatment. Museum visitors can sit on the same seat that Rosa Parks sat on.
As previously mentioned, Greenfield Village began with Henry Ford’s boyhood home, but eventually grew to become an entire village of historical homes. It is a living history museum, meaning that it attempts to recreate the past by allowing visitors to enter its buildings of varying ages. The famous buildings that Henry Ford relocated to Greenfield Village include Thomas Edison’s workshop, where he invented the light bulb; the cabin of George Washington Carver, who invented peanut butter; the home of Noah Webster, who compiled a famous dictionary; and the home of the Wright Brothers, who invented the first successful airplane. Although moving buildings from their original locations somewhat detracts their historical significance, at least they are being well-preserved in their new location.
The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are definitely worth a visit, especially if you are interested in U.S. history.
Sources and Further Reading
American Experience: Henry Ford. Directed by Sarah Colt. Boston: WGBH, 2013.
“History and Mission.” The Henry Ford. https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/henry-ford-collector/ (accessed May 29, 2020).