Transportation exhibition offers a history lesson


An antique truck is pictured on the Route 66 exhibit. The National Museum of American History's exhibit, America on the Move, explores the history of transportation in the country. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The schoolchildren piled into the rail car in downtown Washington and looked up and down as the lights flickered and the floor rumbled.

“We’re here!” one of the young passengers shouted, all of them heading for the door like seasoned commuters.

The rail car never actually moved, nor did the amused young riders. The hulking mass of steel once carried workers around the Loop, but now Chicago Transit Authority car No. 6719 sits in the middle of a massive Smithsonian exhibition on transportation.

Like the trains and cars it highlights, “America on the Move” at the National Museum of American History was built for the long haul. The exhibition opened in 2003, and 10 years later, the collection — with motorcycles, trucks and even a locomotive — remains one of the most popular stops at the museum.

The show uses transportation to chronicle American history, said Steven Lubar, a historian who headed up the team that spent five years creating it.

“Any topic you look at, transportation’s a good way into it,” said Lubar, who is now a professor of American Studies at Brown University. Transportation is a particularly “great way of telling a story in a museum” because of the objects involved, he added.

The exhibition is spread over nearly 26,000 square feet on the first floor. One of the biggest objects is the green locomotive that pulled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train in 1945. Elsewhere is one of the D.C. streetcars that ran up and down Seventh Street and that are the inspiration for the fleet of streetcars the District is launching this year on H Street NE. And what would an American transportation museum be without a Greyhound bus?

“Every person uses transportation in one way or another,” said Peter Liebhold, who was on the team that planned the exhibition and now oversees it for the museum. “People have strong feelings about transportation.”

Liebhold said that the show tries to avoid lots of text. Instead, objects and vehicles are presented in their historical context. Cars are shown on roads, and the D.C. streetcar is presented near a partial re-creation of the District’s Center Market about 1900.

“It’s a classic natural history exhibition,” he said. “Like when you see a beaver in its natural habitat, so you have a better understanding of the beaver.”

The show crisscrosses the country, taking visitors through a succession of historical eras. The early days of transcontinental rail travel are marked by the connection between Santa Cruz, Calif., to the rest of the country. Then comes the emergence of the car and the growing need for better roads. And that is followed by the growth of suburbia as represented by the small Chicago suburb of Park Forest.

Most of the displays are hands-off, to ensure that they are around for all 30 years that the show is intended to last. Millions of visitors opening and closing a car’s doors or climbing onto a motorcycle would mean wear and tear.

The old Chicago rail car is the exception. A screen at the front of the car shows a film depicting what workers may have discussed during a morning commute in 1959. Visitors can board the car through an area made up to resemble one of that city’s elevated train stations. As a result, the car takes a lot of knocks, Liebhold said. On a recent morning, a child playing with one of the window cranks accidentally pulled it off.

Some visitors say even more interactivity would be better for younger visitors. “They don’t want to just read something,” said Derek Zappa, who was visiting on a school trip with 26 eighth-graders from Phoenix. That’s why it’s great they could go into the rail car, he added. “That they can touch and feel it, that's a big deal,” said Zappa, 39, the school’s athletic director.

People of all ages flock to the show. On a recent day, students on school trips, families, retirees and travelers from as far away as China and Germany were among the visitors examining a 1986 Dodge Caravan and the D.C. streetcar.

The organizers aren’t surprised that the exhibit is still a draw after a decade. It was developed with the idea that it would stay up for 30 years, which isn’t unusual for such a large show, Liebhold said.

Many of the objects in “America on the Move” are big and would be, well, difficult to move. When the museum closed for renovations from 2006 to 2008, larger items such as the 199-ton locomotive stayed in place rather than being lugged along Constitution Avenue.

But the longevity of the show and of a handful of others, such as the Sant Ocean Hall in the National Museum of Natural History and “America’s Presidents” at the National Portrait Gallery, are nonetheless notable in a city full of museums that cycle through exhibitions.

Fittingly for a history museum, the exhibition doesn’t bog down in technical details about subjects such as the evolution of the steam engine. For people who care more about history than about engineering, that’s a big selling point.

“It’s the history of America explained through the development of transportation,” said Frauke Austermann, 28, a political scientist originally from Germany who was visiting the United States for the first time. “I like that better than explaining to me what an engine is.”

The show can evoke memories for visitors of different ages, which Liebhold said is one of the goals, particularly for a museum that’s popular with families coming with multiple generations.

“I come from a long line of motorheads, and this is our cup of tea,” said Roxanne Rosborough, 58, of Hawaii, who was filming parts of the exhibit to show to her family. “Everything I’ve ever spoken about with my grandfather, father and brothers, it’s all here.”

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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