“The Great American Road Trip” – This was the concept that was approved to begin building an exhibit around. For every special exhibit that I design for the California Automobile Museum, I work with our volunteers to take a broad topic and make it entertaining and interesting, as well as practical for our museum. Not an easy task, but a fun one for me!
The heyday of the road trip in the United States was in the post-war era from the 1950s into 1970s. Obviously, nostalgia was going to be a large part of the equation. Station wagons and roadside attractions were a must! Old maps and suitcases are perfect! But what do all of these MEAN to our visitors and to the history of the road trip in California and all of the United States?
In the end, it was decided that we must go beyond nostalgia and do our best to showcase the variety in types of road trips and the different experiences that people have.
I was surprised to find an unexpected mix of resources for this exhibit. Many published books on road trips are about reliving the fun on Route 66 and are full of gorgeous photographs but not much about larger cultural history or research. Thankfully, I was able to find a few really amazing academic books including two that I would highly recommend (listed below if you are curious!) and a surprisingly large number of online sources with well-research history on road trips.
An essential part of telling the story of the road trip is how different American populations experienced road trips. In this exhibit, we specifically feature the history of African American travelers and how gender roles worked on road trips. Both of these topics are important and largely underappreciated for their impact on American and automotive culture.
I feel that it is particularly important to learn about the experiences of Black families going on road trips and the discrimination and dangers they faced. We are fortunate that at this time, there is more research and awareness of this topic and things like The Green Book that we were able to build this exhibit around.
The road trip is a vast and fascinating history that we can only scratch the surface of in this display. Road trips are intertwined with many other topics in American history, and dozens of fascinating topics could not be given the depth and attention they deserve. Some of the stories I would love to dig into more at the Museum are the building of our road’s infrastructure, creature of comfort in cars, women drivers and their independence, driving and vehicle safety, minority experiences with the automobile, peripheral industries such as service stations, AAA and other services and guide books, and so many many more!
As with every exhibit that I design, I want the visitor to be able to engage with what we are showing. The fun of the nostalgic objects throughout the exhibit (a Chatty Cathy doll! a transistor radio! old cameras!) are one great way to do this. But what about actually interacting with the exhibit? We encourage visitors to fold maps on display, flip through books about road trips (including a copy of The Green Book), send a postcard to a friend, and design their own roadside attraction.
I was surprised at how much I absolutely loved one particular part of the exhibit, after it all came to together. Before the exhibit opened, I put a call out for members of the Museum to submit photographs of their families on road trips. And boy, did I get some amazing pictures! Copies of these hundreds of photos have been attached to a large wall in the exhibit, bringing real life and people to the display, ranging from the early 1900s to the present day.
All of this makes me want to take another road trip! I do have six U.S. states I haven’t been to yet….
Two books I highly recommend for a deeper dive:
• Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations by Susan Session Rugh
• Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highway, Transforming American Life by Tom Lewis
This Hitting the Road exhibit is open now through February 25. Admission for the museum is Adults: $10, Seniors, Military, Students: $9, Kids older than 5: $5, Kids younger than 5: Free. We are open Wednesday through Monday form 10am-5pm.