Kendra and I had to be on the bus by 7:00am, so I set three alarms beginning at 5:30am. Of course, I boarded the bus at EXACTLY 7:00am. Whew, made it! Our destination was Washington D.C., a place I had not been in almost ten years. Being a history buff, it’s my type of city. I knew our itinerary was exciting, but I don’t think either myself or Kendra knew just how cool this day would be!
Early morning. Very early morning.
One of the great things about this conference was that since our host site, the AACA Museum, is a Smithsonian affiliate, we were able to take advantage of this relationship by getting some great behind-the-scenes looks at the Smithsonian. We had to endure a long bus ride, first—but as us east coasters know, that’s just part and parcel with taking a trip to DC.
Our trip ended when the bus pulled up to the Smithsonian Visitor Center, which is housed in a castle built in 1855. It’s surrounded by beautiful gardens. It was lovely and a great place to stretch our legs after getting off the bus. My favorite part of the gardens? Seeing a vintage photo from the late 1800s of buffalo grazing on the grounds outside the castle before the National Zoo was constructed.
Our first stop was the Smithsonian Castle. Kendra and I were in awe of the architecture. It was just stunning. We took a quick potty and snack break then proceeded to go next door to the lower level of the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Technically, this building was underground, which was really unique.
Our guides took us to the S. Dillon Ripley Center, which is a cute little copper domed building—it reminded me of a small enclosed gazebo, and the Smithsonian’s own website refers to it as a kiosk. Upon entering, you descend a spiral staircase who knows how deep underground. It felt like it went down forever. It was here that we had our presentations made by several Smithsonian curators in a theater with vaulted ceiling and projection systems. The engineering it took to do all this underground astounded me.
Once seated in the auditorium we heard from curators and directors from the following organizations; Smithsonian Institute-Traveling Exhibitions, Smithsonian Institute- Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History (specifically, the Smithsonian Automobile Collection), and the National Air and Space Museum. The presentations were educational, exciting, and inspiring. We got to preview exhibits that won’t be opened until 2020 and beyond. We learned display and exhibit techniques and planning. This part of the day certainly got my head spinning with ideas!
Our presentations by the curators were enlightening and great catalysts for ideas and brainstorming. We heard about the current America on the Move exhibit at the National Museum of American History. We learned about how it has been transformed over the years, how different cars are swapped in and out, how the Smithsonian incorporates cultural and social history into the exhibit by developing ‘non-automotive’ complements to the cars.
Our next presentation was on the upcoming Speed exhibit for the National Air and Space Museum, which incorporates all forms of transportation. While the exhibit is still in planning stages, I was impressed by how the Smithsonian executes and maps out their exhibits. The Smithsonian has exhibits that last 10 years or more, so they take great care and put much detail into every exhibit—after all, they have to live with it for the foreseeable future. Since things don’t change as frequently as what I am used to, it gave me ideas on how to better plan all details of our exhibits.
After a quick lunch break, Autumn and I were part of the group that got back on the bus to tour behind the scenes of the automobile collection storage area. We were not able to take photos at this location so we just had to sear in our memory the amazing trucks, cars, and steam vehicles we saw on our trips down the aisles. It’s astounding what cool things are in storage and it makes you realize both the quality of items on display in the Smithsonian galleries, as well as just how much US history we have been able to save. What a treat. This was actually my second trip to the storage facilities—several years ago the Museum was able to acquire a WWII Jacobs radial aircraft engine (built in Pottstown, PA) that the Smithsonian deaccessioned and took out of their collection. That time, I was able to look at the aviation and space craft. I count my blessings that I’ve found myself at a museum where I get such unique opportunities as these!
Now on to my favorite part of the whole day, possibly the whole week! We departed the S. Dillon Ripley Center around 1:30pm and headed to the National Museum of American History’s storage facility for a behind the scenes tour of their automobile collection. The facility houses approximately seventy cars, including early prototypes from 1866 to 1899, early manufactured cars from 1898 to 1903, electric cars, special models, a turbine engine prototype, and many racing cars. Just to give you an idea of how rare and unique this opportunity was, there was no photos or videos allowed, and the guy at the gate was armed. So cool! My favorite piece in the collection was by far their ca. 1880 Long Steam Tricycle. I have an affinity for early bicycles, so yes, I screamed when I saw this tricycle. The Long Steam Tricycle was built in Massachusetts by George Long, a carpenter and inventor. Unfortunately, Long’s horse-owning neighbors weren’t thrilled with the contraption, so he dismantled it. He received a patent in 1883. After Long’s death, a steam vehicle collector re-assembled the tricycle and placed it in the Smithsonian. It is fair to say that Kendra and I were also enamored by the early medical equipment. We’re weird, ok! Towards the end of the tour we got to chat with Roger White, Curator of the National Museum of American History. Turns out he knew Paul Hafer, The Boyertown Museum’s founder, and visited our collection in the 1980’s. On the way out of the complex, Kendra and I oo’ed and aw’ed over a shiny and beautifully decorated Gypsy Carriage that was sitting just outside one of the storage buildings.
After our behind-the-scenes trip, we got back on the bus and went back to Washington, DC proper. This time we were dropped off at the National Mall to see the ‘car in a box.’ The Historic Vehicle Association has been preserving—through photographing, 3D scanning, and research—cars that have been integral to our country’s history. These historically significant vehicles are then placed, one at a time, in a large display box on the National Mall. The car on display when we were there was none other than a…1984 Plymouth Voyager, the first Chrysler minivan! Complete with faux wood paneling! It’s funny—there are some people Autumn and I have talked to since that scoff at the idea of putting an ’84 minivan in a box on the Mall as some historically significant vehicle. But both Autumn and I LOVED seeing it because it brought back so many memories. Growing up, my family had one very similar (ours was blue, but still had that paneling!), and to see that minivan there in its pristine glory made me think of so many trips with my brothers and parents. It was the van in which we brought home our beloved Siberian husky when he was just a little puppy. It was the van that smelled of chlorine every summer because of all the trips to the pool my dad and I took. It was the van I loaded and unloaded countless times with my instruments to go to lessons. And we noticed so many passers by stopping to look at it and read the details. And reminisce.
How many car guys care about a 1984 Plymouth Voyager? None. The answer is none. Then why was the first Chrysler Minivan (a 1984 Plymouth Voyager) displayed in front of the White House for a week, you may ask. Well, because some car guys (specifically the HVA) are finally starting to realize that we need to engage the youth in this dying hobby. The mission of the Historic Vehicle Association is to promote the cultural and historical significance of the automobile and protect the future of our automotive past. Personally, I think the choice to put a vehicle like this on display was risky and extremely successful. So, why the 1984 Voyager? Simply put, Millennials. Fortunately, or unfortunately for Kendra and me, we are Millennials. Believe it or not, Millennials DO like old things, and learning about them, especially when we have a fond memory of said thing. When Kendra and I saw the 1984 Voyager sitting in front of the Capitol Building we both immediately started sharing stories of trips in our family’s Voyagers. Kendra’s family had an ‘84, while mine had an ‘89 I believe. No, it’s not a super rare Ford or Cadillac, but it resonated with us. I took notice that during the time we were there (about 45 minutes) over fifty or so young people stopped to get a photo of the Voyager. This makes me so happy. Kendra and I heard Mark Gessler, the president of the HVA speak about the association’s future plans and goals. I found him to be a great story-teller and a very good public speaker. Story-telling is important in keeping the hobby alive, I think.
This was where we ended our DC trip. Tomorrow would bring us an opportunity to learn more about the HVA and just how they preserve our nation’s automotive heritage.
After story time we boarded the bus for Hershey. At this point we were starving and getting a bit giggly from exhaustion. We stopped in Maryland for dinner at an old-fashioned buffet. Eh. We arrived back at the AACA Museum in Hershey around 10:00pm. I was beat, but also very excited for our private tour of the NB Center the next day.