The largest exhibition ever to be installed in the National Museum of American History will open on November 22, and its ringing invitation will be hard to resist: All aboard! “America on the Move” is a spectacular multimedia presentation of how Americans took to rail and road and water over the past two centuries, and of how their restless motion drove the economic, social and cultural life of the nation. The exhibition will fill almost 26,000 square feet of the museum’s first floor and display some 300 objects from our remarkable transportation collections. But the objects will be displayed as they have never been shown before, in period settings that scrupulously re-create their historical context.
The first big story in the show is set in 1876. By that centennial year, the calamitous war was long over and the first transcontinental railroad had been built, with others soon to follow. The nation had the energy and will to test its limits, and the technology was ready to oblige. Visitors to the exhibition will be greeted by a steam locomotive, the Jupiter, gliding for the first time into the California town of Santa Cruz in 1876, all spanking new and beautiful, with exterior trim of gold filigree and brass and a cab of fitted walnut. We want audiences to see in this opening setting, as in all the other settings in the exhibition, not just a splendid object but living history: the Jupiter brought the future to Santa Cruz. (There’s a second locomotive in the exhibition, a 92-foot-long behemoth that was in service to the Southern Railway in North Carolina in the 1920s, and visitors will be forgiven if their first question about it is not historical but logistical: “How did they ever get that in here?” Answer: very slowly, using specially designed equipment.)
In its early days, the automobile must have seemed unlikely competition for the horse. The exhibition features the first car ever to travel across the country, a red Winton, but it’s shown at a low point of that 1903 trip, stuck in a muddy rut somewhere in Wyoming. A dog named Bud was along for the ride, and he’s in the exhibition too, as are the goggles that kept the flying dust from his canine eyes. The Winton left the rut and finished the trip, and that should have been a sign: in the course of the new century the automobile would finish off one version of America and make an entirely new one. As evidence of the transformation, the exhibition includes a 1950 Buick Super sedan, shown in a new-car dealership in Portland, Oregon, its great front bumper of gleaming chrome teeth fixed in a smile about upward economic mobility at midcentury. There’s also a 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon, the perfect emblem of suburban ascendancy, sitting in the driveway of a new home in Park Forest, Illinois. Cars brought highways to America, and we’ve brought a bit of highway to the National Museum of American History: a section of the fabled Route 66 that once ran for 2,448 miles from Illinois to California. Be warned, though: to get your kicks, you’ll need a longer stretch of 66 than the 40 feet we’ll be laying down.
After travels in France with a donkey, a form of transportation absent from the new show, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this: “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” (Stevenson made it to California by ship and train in 1879.) For Americans, the great affair of movement has been fundamental to the growth and prosperity of the country. But even as the new show tells an epic story about the United States, we hope that visitors who immerse themselves in its sights and sounds may find a personal story too. After all, a two-wheel bike or a first car marks a rite of passage; a train’s departure can lift, or break, the heart; and a highway stretching to the horizon points to a world of possibility—elsewhere. All aboard indeed.