Dearborn: Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford

Greenfield Village is an interesting problem. It’s a mismash of interesting buildings pretending to be a village. Henry Ford collected buildings he thought important and used them to recreate a fantasy village. An odd fantasy—a good part of it is pre-industrial, which is what one would think he would do; but there are also some serious industrial buildings, as well as the Edison “invention factories”. New buildings have been added, too, over the years, reflecting the layers of ideas of generations of curators.

Yet another new layer has been added. There’s a phrase in the business: FDGs—“former Disney guys.” And while I don’t know who redid the Village, it has all the earmarks of FDG work. That’s good and bad—for the most part, good. The Village is much livelier than the last time I was there, much more interesting. On the other hand, some elements are way too Disneyesque.

The good first. You can do things now. This makes an enormous difference. For $3 you can ride in a Model T. (I paid the $3, and got more than my money’s worth—not only a good lesson in how the pedals work, but a great story about Ford’s centennial Model T replicas. For more money, you can take driving lessons. I’d sign up for that, too.) You can ride on the train or a bus, too.

You can also run some of the machines. For another three bucks you can run a turret lathe. I didn’t do this—kids were waiting in line—but it turns out to be much more educational to watch someone learn how to do it than to watch a bored docent do it for the hundredth time. Definitely something for other museums to learn from.

They’ve gone a bit far with the crafts in some areas. What should be industrial processes have been turned into crafts. I can see why—it’s fun, they can sell lessons and sell products—but it makes for a distorted message about historical production.

The FDGs have also cleaned the place up a bit too much. Some beautiful plantings around the machine shop. The lake has some fine water plants. Now, it was never accurate before, and it’s never pretended to be an industrial town… but the mixed signals are louder and more confusing than before.

The one part of the FDG work that I found objectionable was the parade. Anyone who’s been to Disneyworld knows about the parades—the whole place is set up around them. Well, Greenfield Village now has a Disney parade. The entertainers, the cars, the bicycles, singing and dancing their way through the streets…. I didn’t get there to see the beginning, so I’m not sure how they introduced it—but it seems quite out of place…

Overall, though: the place looks better than it ever has. There’s more to do, there’s more depth. The balance still needs work, but it’s headed in the right direction.

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2 Comments

  1. As one of the FDGs who worked on the re-development of Greenfield Village, I was quite interested in this blog. The Model T Test Drive was a fiercely debated component of the new Village. I originally envisioned the Test Drive as the concluding element of a contiguous set of experiences originating at the Henry Ford birthplace (relocated). The immersion experience would take gusts from Ford’s childhood through the creation of the Quadricycle, the establishment of the first factory and the success of the Model T, concluding with an object theater that emulated the experience of visiting the Model T production line and the guest boarding a Model T for a ‘Test Drive’ as it exited the factory (something by the way that was actually done – each car being test driven before shipment).While not fully realized as originally intended – I think the guest data proves, as does the blogger’s comments, that this approach to experiential history has merit – even if considered by some to be to “Disneyesque”. When one considers that the majority of Greenfield Village is composed of what staffers call “Fordgeries” the true nature of the beast is to create a series of thematic history based experiences that promote better understanding of the cultural and technological advances made in our past while celebrating the innovation and American spirit that made them possible.Sometimes we need to look out of the box and explore the potential found in the marriage of successful story-telling techniques and the informal museum learning experience.I am proud to have contributed to a number of Henry Ford projects and I value the experience gained from working with the museum’s knowledgeable and creative staff. The institution should be applauded for Steve Hamp, Patricia Moradian, Donna Braden and others willingness to test the boundaries of traditional museum experiences and for their efforts to try new approaches to the old “book on the wall.”

  2. LF

    As one of the “FDG”s who worked on the re-development of Greenfield Village, I was quite interested in this blog. The Model ‘T’ Test Drive was a fiercely debated component of the new Village. I originally envisioned the ‘Test Drive’ as the concluding element of a contiguous set of experiences originating at the Henry Ford birthplace (relocated). The immersion experience would take gusts from Ford’s childhood through the creation of the Quadricycle, the establishment of the first factory and the success of the Model T, concluding with an object theater that emulated the experience of visiting the Model T production line and the guest boarding a Model T for a ‘Test Drive’ as it exited the factory (something by the way that was actually done – each car being test driven before shipment).While not fully realized as originally intended – I think the guest data proves, as does the blogger’s comments, that this approach to experiential history has merit – even if considered by some to be to “Disneyesque”. When one considers that the majority of Greenfield Village is composed of what staffers call “Fordgeries” the true nature of the beast is to create a series of thematic history based experiences that promote better understanding of the cultural and technological advances made in our past while celebrating the innovation and American spirit that made them possible.Sometimes we need to look out of the box and explore the potential found in the marriage of successful story-telling techniques and the informal museum learning experience.I am proud to have contributed to a number of Henry Ford projects and I value the experience gained from working with the museum’s knowledgeable and creative staff. The institution should be applauded for Steve Hamp, Patricia Moradian, Donna Braden and others willingness to test the boundaries of traditional museum experiences and for their efforts to try new approaches to the old “book on the wall.”

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