Forecast isn’t all gloom for car museums

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Things can get crowded at the National Corvette Museum, which is considering an expansion program | Larry Edsall photos

The state of America’s car museums may not be quite as dismal a picture as was painted recently in a recent article in The New York Times. 

Yes, the tourist town of Shipshewana, Indiana, is shutting down its Hudson museum (which has to have founder Eldon Hostetler roiling in his grave). Yes, the Auto Collections have left the Linq (nee Imperial Palace) hotel in Las Vegas, but it was as much a dealership showroom as a true museum. And, yes, the Chrysler museum closed a while ago.

And, yes, it is true that admission fees likely do not generate enough income to keep the cars polished and the lights on in many places, let alone leave enough left over for marketing efforts that might let more people — and especially a younger audience — learn about the museums and what they offer.

But… 

•  Chrysler recently announced plans to open a new museum, this one to be housed in the former Viper assembly plant, a fact that in itself will be a likely draw.

•  In the last couple of years, Newport, Rhode Island, has been the site of the opening of not one but two brand-new car museums.

•  The Gilmore Car Museum campus in southwestern Michigan seems to sprout a new building every few years to house yet another marque-themed collection.

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•  Museums have popped up seemingly every hundred miles or so along historic Route 66.   

•  The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has re-invented and revitalized itself with a major makeover.

•  A group in Michigan is raising money to open a museum dedicated to 4×4 vehicles. 

Corvette museum Skydome is a landmark adjacent to I-65 in western Kentucky

And this week we’ve learned that the National Corvette Museum, which in the past few years rebounded in remarkable fashion from a natural disaster — the sinkhole that swallowed cars — is expanding its footprint.  

The first step will be to acquire an additional 205 acres for the potential expansion of the museum’s NCM Motorsports Park, a relatively new race track-style driving facility located just across Interstate 65 from the museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The museum also will build on its side of the highway a new building to provide storage space for its ever-growing car collection. Since there’s not sufficient room in the museum to showcase all those cars, as well as a series of temporary but special displays, a study is beginning to examine what the museum’s spatial needs will be in the next decade or two. 

Though no specific plans have been determined, a museum representative told the ClassicCars.com Journal that a committee will do a study, to be reviewed by management, and then if approved by the museum’s board, a two-year capital campaign will be undertaken to fund whatever construction project is undertaken.

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“I think you’re absolutely right that there is a bright side,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan. Anderson recently was elected president of the National Association of Automobile Museums.

“Cars are still part of our everyday life, and people will be interacting with them for generations. They remember the cars they grew up with. That’s an important point.

“It’s also important to say that we may see a lot of gray hair at car shows, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the natural order of things. Older folks collect because they have disposable income.”

However, he added, “We had our national automobile museum meeting last month in Hershey (Pennsylvania) and I was really pleased.  More than 100 members were there and there were a lot of young people there, people in their 20s and 30s. (Museum) employees used to be folks who came up through the car collecting hobby. Now, we’re seeing people with backgrounds (college degrees) in art and architecture. They know the techniques to preserve objects and to get their stories told.”

Anderson said he’s seeing a generational shift in museum audiences and that museums are responding, “thinking beyond the four walls of the museum,” as he put the growth of the use of the internet and social media to share the story of museums and their collections and the role automobiles have and continue to play in culture.

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But while virtual may be inspiring, he added, there’s nothing like actually going to a museum and seeing an object in person and in context.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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