In 1894, Elwood Haynes, a Portland, Ind., native, traveled in the Kokomo countryside at speeds near 7 mph in one of the first gasoline-powered, self-propelled vehicles. He had horses tow his automobile prototype in town so he wouldn’t frighten other horses off the road.
It’s safe to say times have changed, and the Indiana Historical Society has updated its traveling exhibit to reflect those changes.
Auto Indiana showcases Indiana’s major contributions to the automobile industry in the past century and will make one of its first statewide stops at the History Center. The exhibit, which highlights the state’s early innovators, car companies and future, will be at the museum until October.
Eloise Batic, director of exhibit research development, says the exhibit is an updated version of the Historical Society’s former automobile traveling exhibit, which was in need of some major improvements.
The traveling exhibits have existed for 30 years, and we’ve always had one on automobiles; it was one of our most popular exhibits, and it was always booked, she says.
When it returned to the Historical Society, it was incredibly beat up and outdated. I took the opportunity to update it since it was something very popular.
Indiana was one of the early leaders in automobile manufacturing until the 1930s, when Detroit became an auto industry giant. Beginning with innovators in the early 1900s, car companies like Studebaker, Cord and Duesenberg were all established during this era in South Bend, Auburn and Indianapolis, respectively.
As a nation, I think when we think of automobiles, we think of Detroit. However, for those who look a little deeper, it involves more of the Midwest, and Indiana’s contributions have a lot to do with that, she says.
Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center, says the Historical Society approached the museum about unveiling two new traveling exhibits this year. Auto Indiana will be the fall exhibit, and an exhibit on Prohibition will follow in the spring.
Northeast Indiana has long been a transportation center, he says. It’s an area where major national and international transports have converged, even when you go back to the time of the Miami-controlled portage.
The new exhibit is split into four primary sections: Manufacturing; Transcending the Indiana Landscape; The Love Affair with Automobiles; and The Road Ahead.
Batic says it was important to update the exhibit with information relevant to viewers today. Besides showcasing Indiana’s rich automobile history, the exhibit covers the nostalgic aspects of cars in advertising and everyday life, the economic and environmental impacts on car manufacturing today and what is on the horizon for automobiles.
The original exhibit really only covered the manufacturing angle about cars produced in Indiana, and that’s a very proud part of our history, but we felt we could do more. We relate to our cars in ways that transcend the auto plant, Batic says.
We saw that as a way to engage visitors to come who may not be interested in auto manufacturing. It broadens the appeal. We wanted to tap into design, innovation, but also the romance of the automobile.
Batic says the traveling exhibit gives a glimpse into a number of Indiana’s automobile museums. She says it’s a great way to introduce visitors to museums that supplement what the exhibit is not able to thoroughly cover.
I would always say that if you’re interested in automobiles and don’t see these museums, you’re missing out. Whether you to go the Speedway museum or the Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, there are so many great places to visit, she says.
What we’re doing is a flat-panel exhibit with text and graphics. If you want to be in the presence of these great automobiles, you should go visit the unique area where they were made.
Batic says purposefully developed exhibits help viewers build their own stories and perhaps embrace a new chapter of exploration.
For me, exhibits should always spark an interest. What I like to do is use an exhibit to help people think of a story that they never thought of before, Batic says. My hope is for people to think of an amazing story behind the things they see every day, and get inspired to go to one of the museums in Indiana.