The exterior of the Harley-Davidson Museum on Canal St.
1. Motorcycle Cruiser magazine:
Hello Jim, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. How long have you been curator for the Harley-Davidson Museum? And how did you get there?
Jim Fricke, Curatorial Director...
Jim Fricke, Curatorial Director at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
I started at Harley-Davidson in late July of 2004. I was hired as Curatorial Director to lead the exhibit development for the museum. With museum start-up projects, often the whole development is farmed out to contract designers/content developers, but Harley-Davidson wanted to have someone from the inside leading the exhibit development.
Prior to this gig I worked for a little over 12 years for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. I got hired in 1992 to lead the content side of a project to build a small Jimi Hendrix Museum in Seattle. The idea evolved, and that museum ultimately opened in 2000 as the Experience Music Project, a futuristic popular music/popular culture museum.
2. MC: From a historical standpoint, how daunting was it to come to the Motor Company's Collection from the outside and try to make organizational sense of it all? To anybody -- rather than just a motorcyclist?
JF: I go into any exhibit project the same way: immerse myself in the story and develop an outline of key points and messages that need to be conveyed to the audience; identify what’s unique about the subject matter and what aspects are most powerful for enthusiasts and the general public; then organize, test, and edit. I felt immediately that motorcycle enthusiasts and music fans are not that different. With both motorcycling enthusiasts and music fans the people use those things to define who they are and how they live their life, to identify what group they’re with and differentiate themselves from others, and generate new meaning in their life.
With Harley-Davidson we had a powerful, meaningful story with a great series of dramatic arcs, conflicts and resolutions, challenges and triumphs AND an incredible collection of materials with which to tell the story. The Harley-Davidson Archives is second-to-none, and it made putting the exhibits together a real pleasure.
3. MC: Were you given a framework for the various elements to be displayed (i.e. Tank Wall, Engine Room, Custom Culture, etc) or did you have to sit down with Harley folks and start from scratch?
I worked with my team and our exhibit designers to lay out the template for all the exhibits, then presented that to a board of executives who okayed things. We started from scratch, went through lots of ideas and configurations, then settled on the one we thought would work best to engage visitors in the stories.
On the second floor of the...
On the second floor of the museum is the Engine Wall is on the second floor of the H-D Museum. It's hung with a variety of Harley engine models, from Flathead to Evolution, and flanked on either side by vintage Harleys. You can view Flathead, Knucklehead, Panhead, Shovelhead, opposed-twin, and Evolution powerplants (and others) side by side, and you can start and revved them via interactive display buttons as well.
4. MC: What was your objective when assembling the various parts into one cohesive display? What would you say was your mission, and was that dictated by the Museum itself, or did you have some leeway?
JF: When we started developing the museum, our shorthand objective was “one step closer.” Whatever relationship to Harley-Davidson and the sport of motorcycling a visitor had when entering the museum, we wanted them to leave feeling closer to and more passionate about the brand and the sport. If they’re a hardcore enthusiast making a pilgrimage to motorcycle mecca, we want to exceed their expectations and further stoke their passion. If they’re a non-motorcycling history buff, we want to inspire further interest. If they enter a skeptic, and are only here because someone dragged them along, we want to start changing their mind about the sport, and what Harley represents.
What obstacles did you come across when actually prepping items for display?
JF: There was a great deal of work done to prepare pieces. We had an internal team preparing the bikes, and brought in experts in paper, textile and object conservation. One of the biggest challenges was building displays that met the expectations of people like Willie G, and still adequately preserved the pieces. For instance, Harley-Davidson paint is designed to look great in the sun, but we need to control light levels to be able to preserve these treasures for future generations. And we want people to be able to get close, but in a museum that draws so many people of all ages, you need to keep things at arm’s length in order to keep them safe.
6. MC: Iknow the museum complex took years to build, but how long did it take to assemble/complete each display inside?
JF: It was definitely a running work in progress. Every exhibit takes on a life of its own as it develops, unforeseen challenges and opportunities occur, and things inevitably get complicated. Figuring out which objects will work best to connect visitors with the story, selecting the graphics, designing the high-impact “wow” experiences, making the films, writing the text, working through licensing … things always get messy. I was fortunate to be able to hire a few really talented people to help, and got great support both from around the company and across the motorcycling and museum community. We were down to the wire and multitasking throughout. It always works out that way.
7. MC: All political correctness aside, what would be your favorite item displayed in the permanent collection?
JF: It sounds like a cop-out, but I like different pieces for different reasons. It’s magical when you find just the right thing to tell the part of the story you’re working on. Like for the 1907 incorporation: To have the actual documents written in the founder’s hands and the photo taken that day, doesn’t get better than that. Or, a small example that many visitors wouldn’t notice: Right after the buyback, when company leadership had to right the ship and had very little money....I found a handwritten note from them directing manufacturing how to cut the “AMF” off the decals, so they didn’t have to make new decals.
The eye-popping " Rhinestone-Glide"...
The eye-popping " Rhinestone-Glide" (as they call it at the museum), is one of curator Jim Fricke's favorite bikes on display. With its thousands of rivets, studs, reflectors and lights, some say it's the most blinged-out custom Harley in existence.
On the bike side, the most exciting acquisition was a group of 8 pre-WWII factory race bikes—board trackers and hill climbers from 1916 through the early-‘30s. The company had saved production bikes but not race bikes from that period, and we had to tell that story. That was a fascinating negotiation, and we were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. They’re all beautiful, but the 1916 Model T says something special to me.
By contrast, I’ve got a real soft spot for the double-knucklehead “King Kong,” having spent time with the widow, daughter, and grandson of the builder, and I’m almost an honorary member of the Townsend family, of “Russ and Peg’s Rhinestone Harley” fame, so those bikes are special to me.
Harley-Davidson was determined...
Harley-Davidson was determined -- OK, you could say obsessed -- about besting rival Indian at the races, even early on. As a result, H-D's factory racing bikes were always running new kinds of technologies. Brit rider Fred Dixon's 1923 racer used four valves per cylinder, with two camshafts actuating them.
For the Design Lab section, did you collaborate with Willie G ?
JF: Yes, I worked with Willie and a host of individuals at the Product Development Center. We’ve changed much of that content since opening, and plan a major overhaul for next year, as both our products and our processes have evolved significantly. We’ll continue to lean on all of our friends at the Product Development Center for help.
9. MC: How many bikes are displayed in the museum?
JF: We shift things around in the museum and change exhibit elements, but there are usually around 140 bikes on display, with more than 1500 other objects, photos, posters, small artifacts, etc. The bike collection totals around 500 at the moment. The bikes in the Experience Gallery change with some regularity. We keep a mix of historic non-collection bikes and new models in there, and rotate different bikes through. We’ve already got next year’s bikes ready to go in there after Labor Day.
10. MC: What is the most valuable piece in the building?
Many items on display are literally priceless, and we’re committed to preserving all of them equally. From a bike point of view, Serial #1 and our 1909 twin are both one-of-a-kind rarities: the oldest known Harley-Davidson in existence, and the only surviving example of the first H-D V-Twin. And our 1923 8-valve; there’s only one other original 8-valve that we know of, and from a collector’s standpoint, the early factory racers are highly sought after.
You'll find the oldest-known...
You'll find the oldest-known Harley in existence sequestered under glass at the museum. You can see certain components stamped with serial number 001.
11. MC: What were the big takeaways for you when curating the collection of such a huge brand?
JF: That’s a big question. I’ll answer with a few thoughts: The story of Harley-Davidson is a great American success story. It encapsulates so many of the best, most important aspects of American entrepreneurship, invention, and perseverance, and has spanned so much of history that almost everyone can see some relationship here to themselves or someone they love. And the company saved so much incredible stuff, that we had a truly unique opportunity to illustrate this great story. AND, I moved right into the Archives, so I could literally immerse myself in it. When I wondered about something, I could go to the source, and while I was looking I’d find ten more amazing things. To build a successful museum you need rich stories capable of touching a wide variety of people, and a trove of great objects to hang those stories on. We had all of those things, and we just had to put it together in the right way.
Note: Activities and exhibits at the Museum are currently focused on Harley-Davidson's 110th Anniversary.