Published: Sept/Oct 2003

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America on the move
AAA, Smithsonian are teaming up to showcase the history of transportation

The Southern Railroad’s 1401 locomotive is the largest object in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (above). Route 66 memorabilia and a 1903 Winton automobile, used on America’s first cross-country car journey, will be part of the exhibition (top).
By David Wilkening

Wearing a hardhat, Steven Lubar walks past massive locomotives and 10-ton rail cars sitting motionless under giant plastic covers as dozens of busy workmen scurry about.

He’s leading a group of visitors through a first-floor Smithsonian Museum of American History exhibition hall, sidestepping construction to give them a sneak preview of a project unlike any the venerable historic archive in Washington, D.C., has ever undertaken.

And one in which AAA will play a key role as a major sponsor.

A tall, thin and bearded academic and author who has a doctorate from the University of Chicago, Lubar is not much for hyperbole. But he’s clearly excited about this unprecedented venture, “America on the Move,” for which he is project director.

“The history of transportation is critical to the entire American experience. In ‘America on the Move,’ we’ll explore our nation’s history by showing vividly how transportation has impacted where we live, how we work and even how we play,” he said.

To accomplish this, the Smithsonian is combining many of the items from its existing displays with high-tech multimedia exhibits to trace, explain and dramatize the critical role transportation has played in American life–a role that often is taken for granted. The exhibit opens Nov. 22 and will be on display for two decades.

Other museums feature transportation exhibits, but none has ever attempted an ambitious effort of this magnitude.

General Motors is the lead sponsor, and AAA is among a small group of major backers of the project, which is expected to cost $28 million.

“AAA has a 100-year commitment to safe and efficient mobility,” said AAA Government Relations Managing Director Kathleen Marvaso. “We wanted to help the nation’s history museum tell this important story about transportation.”

Lubar said visitors will leave the museum with a new understanding of transportation’s influence on the nation’s growth and development while gaining a renewed appreciation for the overall Smithsonian collection.

A seemingly ordinary 1903 Winton motor car, for example, has enormous historical value. H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker drove it on a bumpy 64-day trip that was the first documented cross-country car trek in the nation. Accompanying artifacts will illustrate how the automobile helped transform America’s communities.

“The car was just sitting there in a row of autos. Some people weren’t aware of its historical significance,” Lubar said.

Large trains and trucks and even commuter trains are among the 300 objects on display, and a highlight is the virtual ride on America’s most famous highway–Route 66. Memorabilia from the family of Merle Haggard, the country singer who recalled in his autobiography how the family made the dusty trip from Oklahoma to California, has been amassed. And 90,000 pounds of concrete from Oklahoma’s original Route 66 was shipped to the Smithsonian to build a 40-foot-long version of the famous highway.

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 16 separate buildings and a zoo. The National Museum of American History, with its dramatic view of the National Mall and the Washington Monument, is the only national museum of American history. It is open daily, and admission is free.

The Smithsonian is famous for many of its exhibits, but if “America on the Move” is as successful as Lubar predicts, it could be the most popular in the museum’s history.

“We’ve always been good at displaying large objects–such as trains and trucks–in our collection. But rather than just tell a story of technological change, we are going to take people back in time, to see and touch history and to experience what travel was really like in the past,” Lubar said.

For more details, visit the museum’s Web site at www.americanhistory.si.edu.

David Wilkening is a contributor from Orlando, Fla.

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