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Throughout its expansive campus, The Henry Ford (which includes both the Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village) has a jaw-dropping 24,000 objects on display. This includes everything from cars, trains, structures like a working diner and Buckminster Fuller’s model Dymaxion House, and thousands upon thousands of smaller pieces of the material and technological history of the last several centuries. This number seems staggering, but is actually small potatoes in light of the institution’s archives, which houses one million objects in on- and off-campus storage facilities.

HFA2The Henry Ford archives a huge cross-section of historic garments, acquired or donated by families all over the country.

The collection at the Henry Ford is incredibly well organized and tightly managed, with new acquisitions and research falling under the purview of a cohort of different curators, heading specialized departments: Transportation (Matt Anderson), Public Life (Donna Braden), Communications & Information Technology (Kristen Gallerneaux), Domestic Life (Jeanne Head Miller), Historic Structures & Landscapes (Jim Johnson), Agriculture & Environment (Debra A. Reid), and Decorative Arts (Charles Sable). Chief Curator Marc Greuther is responsible for general oversight of these divisions, as well as specialized curating in Industry & Design, and serving as Senior Director of Historical Resources. 

HFA6Blocks designed by House Industries, which was the first acquisition of their work by curator Marc Greuther, sparking a relationship that grew over the years into the current special exhibition, 'House Industries: A Type of Learning.'

“For me, as a curator, I am generally aware—partly through collecting and also through my work with the collection—of many, many deep veins that run through our collections,” said Greuther, during a tour through the museum’s newest special exhibition, House Industries: A Type of Learning, a 25-year retrospective of the influential design firm, House Industries, for which he served as curator. “Those aren’t necessarily even well represented on the floor. People might say [of the House exhibition], ‘What’s all this punk stuff? What’s that got to do with anything?’—but actually, if you dug a little bit, you’d realize we do have that kind of thing in the collection, it’s just that we’ve not had an exhibit that incorporates it.” 

HFA7Curator of Communications & Information Technology, Kristen Gallerneaux, about to enjoy a historically accurate milkshake at Lamy's Diner in the middle of the Henry Ford Museum.The archives are not open to the public, but requests for tours are honored, and curators are eager to take visitors through and speak to their area of expertise. 

The on-site archive room is a kind of hoarder’s paradise, featuring an assemblage of thousands of objects, meticulously organized into modular shelving that can be opened and collapsed by the turn of a crank. Anytime you talk to a curator, they are likely to tell you with excitement about their most recent acquisition—for example, Kristen Gallerneaux was pleased to mention that she had recently negotiated the purchase of a complete set of original iMacs, one in each of 13 colors. Curators at the Henry Ford spend the majority of their time doing research and narrative development around objects in the existing collection, searching out the stories that will make the foundation for compelling exhibitions. 

“We create what are called Collection Plans, which lay out themes—in essence stories—that we feel the museum should tell,” said Curator of Domestic Life, Jeanne Head Miller, during a tour of the archives that featured a look at some of their stunning quilts—including the intricate and traditional quilts by Susan McCord and the abstract-painting-like constructions of Susana Allen Hunter—and an entire aisle housing the astonishing high fashion wardrobe of Elizabeth Parke Firestone, donated as part of the Firestone Collection. “Under that, we may put some examples of kinds of things to acquire. Those provide guidelines for us, so you don’t just go, ‘I really like that!’ and acquire that.” 

HFA9Just a small portion of Elizabeth Burke Firestone's amazing shoe collection.Looking through drawer after drawer of thousands of dresses, shoes, gloves and other accessories from Elizabeth Firestone’s wardrobe, including early home-sewn creations like her wedding dress, and custom-made items from American and European designers, it is easy to imagine getting carried away with the sheer joy of collecting. 

“A lot of things are offered to us, and then we decide if it’s a fit or not,” said Miller. “Other things, you might actively go out to acquire.” Miller offers the small example of her hunt for the perfect period Mr. Coffee machine, which had been on her collecting list for the post-WWII kitchen installation for quite some time. “We found one on eBay from the mid-‘70s, right when they were making a huge impact, in the original box and everything.”

It is the curatorial love for these objects and the stories they hold that shines through the regular and special exhibition spaces at the Henry Ford, so carefully researched and cultivated by each curator within their discipline. In its collecting of everyday innovations, the museum is preserving a legacy of American life, technical achievement, and craftsmanship—things that can sometimes be hard to see in real time, but stand out starkly in retrospect. HFA4 Details from Susan McCloud's jaw-dropping quilts.

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.

For those who don’t have the time to request a visit to the archives, a huge portion of the Henry Ford’s collections have been digitized, and can be viewed online. You can search the collections by keyword or media type, or view “expert sets”—curator’s favorites from their areas of expertise.

*7/27/17 This article has been updated to reflect the current number of objects on display at The Henry Ford.