A Review of the Earl C. Lindberg Automobile Center

Review

of an Exhibition

by Alyssa Wilson

Published on November 19, 2008

  • Description:

    When approaching a new museum or exhibition, I often think of Neil Postman’s article “Museum as Dialogue.” Postman writes that “a museum is an answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?” He does not mean that this seemingly unanswerable question is answered in its entirety by museums, but that each museum “make[s] an assertion about the nature of humanity.”

    With that thought in mind, I approached the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis Missouri. What connection was I going to find with the exhibits at the museum? How would automobiles, or other vehicles of transportation, add to my definition of humanity and further my interest (and all of our interests) in what it means to be human in this day and age?

    This review focuses, for simplicity sake, on one exhibition gallery at the museum, the Earl C. Lindberg Automobile Center, an exhibition centering on the museum’s collection of automobiles. Upon entering the exhibition gallery, the first things I noticed were the text panels. They were located in front of each vehicle, and were circular in shape, reminiscent of a steering wheel. I was really drawn to the design of the panels and felt that they allowed enough information to connect me to the narrative behind the automobiles but left out excessive information that would have caused me to skim or move on without reading it in its entirety. In addition, gallery attendants were positioned in the galleries to fill in any information that the text panels left out.

    Another interesting aspect to the exhibition was the exhibit cases located between the automobiles. The cases added context by covering broad themes such as pop culture, innovations in fashion and function, chronological history of the automobile, etc . . . . These cases served to connect the machines to humans and to explain the connection to our everyday lives. The case covering “Pop Culture” definitely struck a chord with me. I remember smiling as I noticed a record of the Beach Boy’s “Little Deuce Coupe” and remembered listening to the tune with my father on long car trips. The “Pop Culture” case outlined information about how the automobile has been incorporated into music, television, movies, and so on. The photographs and objects were recognizable to me and, therefore, immediately connected me to the information they were attempting to relate.

    Some aspects of my visit were not as enjoyable, however. I felt distracted by the sounds and bright lights of the drive-in movie theater that was located at the end of the large first floor gallery. Visitors could view the theater from almost every spot in the exhibit except from the upstairs gallery. The theater was bright and constantly drew my eyes away from the automobiles I was focusing on. The lights and speakers in the theater also made loud and distracting humming and snapping noises that echoed throughout the space and almost ruined the tranquil atmosphere that the exhibition projected otherwise. I kept wondering if there could have been a way to make the path a little less open, thus hiding the theater from immediate view and, perhaps, muffling the sounds it radiated. I think that this design feature would add to the surprise of the visitor and would set this object apart as one of the highlights of the exhibition.

    In addition, two design flaws struck me as I moved through the exhibition. The first originated with the organization, or lack there of, in the exhibition. The automobiles were impressive, each with its own appeal, but, from what I could tell, they seemed to be arranged randomly. There was a Mack truck from 1925 next to a Chevrolet automobile from 1954 and, farther down the exhibit path, there was a 1901 St. Louis motor carriage. The exhibition did not appear to be chronologically ordered nor could I decipher a thematic pattern from vehicle to vehicle.

    The second design flaw was apparent in the upstairs gallery, which happened to be the last gallery I toured. I came upon a grouping of modules that allowed a visitor to experience “how the car goes” or “how the brakes work.” These modules were hands-on and attempted to show the inner workings of an automobile. The problem was that in order to operate the modules, you needed two visitors. One visitor was needed to turn a wheel and another to operate the brake or other feature. I was attending the exhibition alone; therefore, I was frustrated by these two-person activities. I wondered at the museum’s decision to assume that there would always be two or more in a party and whether other solo visitors were also frustrated by this aspect.

    There were both superior and inferior aspects to the Earl C. Lindberg Automobile Center. Overall, I enjoyed my time there and felt that I learned from the exhibition. To refer to Postman’s question, I feel that the Transportation Museum helped me to understand the human relationship between people and automobiles. The exhibition reminded me of our dependence on these machines and aligned with contemporary issues such as the rising price of gas and the introduction of hybrid or non-gasoline models. Overall, the exhibition offered interesting information in an easy to absorb fashion and allowed the visitor to connect his or her narratives with those offered in the displays.

    REFERENCE CITED:

    Postman, Neil
    1990 “Museum as Dialogue.” Museum News September/October: 55-58.

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