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Get Your Motor Running

Harley Museum Honors Biker History

Jul. 2, 2008
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In 2006 Harley-Davidson delivered the kind of strapping spectacle only Milwaukee’s motor company could muster: It broke ground on the site of its new museum using a sportster motor bike mounted by a track-racing champion. That knack for flair culminates on July 12, when the finished museum opens its doors to the public in time for Harley’s 105th anniversary bash in August.

Occupying a 20-acre site in the Menomonee Valley, the museum forms a concrete peninsula embraced on three sides by the Menomonee River. The old street grid has been reinstated, so rather than ending at Sixth Street, West Canal Street continues into the museum complex, culminating in a potent, larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a Harley rider thrusting his metal steed skyward.

Instead of one big building, three distinct structures are connected by glass and steel footbridges and surrounded by “parking gardens” and landscaped recreational areas. The buildings are grouped around the established intersection of Fifth and Canal streets. At the west end is the museum archive; toward the south is the retail and restaurant area. Serving as a hinge around which both of these elements rotate, and as the visual focal point, is the museum proper with displays on the first two floors and meeting rooms above. All three buildings are rectangles clad in smooth black bricks with exposed galvanized steel structures. Towering over the museum are steel lattice towers rising like belfries and an oversize steel frame running along the west facade.

Milwaukee’s next major tourist attraction couldn’t look less like the city’s most prominent architectural landmark, the Milwaukee Art Museum. For one thing, there are no moveable parts, or even the slightest allusions to biomorphic forms. For another, the form and materials evoke grit and smoke rather than spiritual hygiene. While the Harley Museum brazenly exposes its structural entrails, the Art Museum’s Calatrava addition is a structure in delicately tapered curves.

Another significant difference: The Art Museum is a soaring signature by a world-renowned European star architect while the Harley Museum is a distinctly earth-bound creation designed by Pentagram, a well-established but comparatively low-profile multidisciplinary design company based in New York. While the Art Museum’s extension is commonly called the “Calatrava,” it’s unlikely the Harley Museum will ever be nicknamed after the building’s lead architect, James Biber.

According to Biber, this is exactly how it should be. “It wasn’t our brand that needed to be imprinted on the building. It was Harley’s,” he explains. Sure enough, the name and date of the company’s inception are literally inscribed in hand-cut gray bricks on the west facade of the archive and the south side of the museum itself. This and the four-sided bar and shield Harley-Davidson logo suspended within one of the museum’s steel towers are among the most ostentatious elements of what is overall a relatively modest design.

The building’s rectilinear forms and solid appearance evoke a factory aesthetic rather than the ephemeral spirit of the Calatrava. It’s a fitting approach for a permanent collection of industrial art. The Harley Museum takes its cue from the warehouse-like spaces of Britain’s Tate Modern, not such extravagant architectural expressions as Frank Gehry’s controversial Experience Music Project in Seattle or Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

“I strived for a building that has classic appeal—one that didn’t feel cool this year and less cool next year, and a little less cool the year after that,” Biber says.

Much like the exterior, the interior of the museum isn’t a visual spectacle, but rather a low-key backdrop for the exhibits. These begin on the upper level, where visitors are ushered after crossing the impressively dark lobby, and are arranged both chronologically and thematically. A series of smaller interconnected galleries tells the history of the company through vintage photographs, posters and other artifacts; larger, more elaborate spaces lend deeper focus to particular facets of biker culture.

As might be expected, the bikes themselves take center stage, sometimes caught in gravity-defying stunts, but most impressively parading down the length of the museum in lines that run three bikes deep. On the upper level, the gallery of bikes serves as a strong central north-south axis. On the lower level, the parade of bikes runs beside the large curtain glass wall in the hope of striking a dialogue with visitors’ bikes parked outside. As a result the upper level is less dramatic but also more open-feel than the lower, the central aisle acting as a permeable boundary between the chronological and thematic galleries. Running below is the circuitous path through various stages of Harley-Davidson history, including stories and memorabilia belonging to local Harley enthusiasts. Highlights include the engine room comprised of a deep orange wall where numerous engines are hung like glittering steel hearts. A series of touch pads allows you to examine their inner dynamics and even listen to each engine’s particular deep-throated growl. An exploding/imploding mechanical drawing of an engine is projected onto the back wall, creating a dynamic light mural, and a number of interactive mechanisms allow visitors to test the mechanics and power of the engines.

Another highlight is the “Experience.” Here visitors have an opportunity to mount a collection of vintage and contemporary bikes and, aided by a high-definition screen showing views of the nation’s highways and byways, engage in a virtual ride.

Although it’s the most somber of the three structures, the archive is in fact the kernel from which the museum grew. As early as 1915 Harley-Davidson began pulling one model off the production line each year and stowing it away. In the early 1990s the archive was formalized and local author and academic Martin Jack Rosenblum was appointed head archivist. He continued in this capacity until his retirement last year.

“It was a privilege to be involved with Harley-Davidson during those years,” Rosenblum says. “Not only did it represent cutting-edge culture, but it was a company led by visionaries like Jeff Bluestein and Richard Teerlink, who understood the heritage factor from a unique perspective.” Although attempts were made to establish a museum at this time, they never came to fruition. “One of the early plans was to house it near the motor company’s offices on Juneau Avenue, which would not have been as good an idea as the building being opened this month,” Rosenblum continues. “Over the years the design for the Harley Museum developed into something far better than the original intention.”

The dynamic between the company and its employees has also changed. The last couple of years have marked a difficult chapter in Harley history, with strikes in recent years affecting production and contributing to layoffs in its Wisconsin and Nebraska plants. Some might argue that unveiling a $75 million museum at this time isn’t the best move Harley could make, but museum Director Stacey Schiesl disagrees.

“I think there’s a wealth of inspiration for Harley employees as well as people from other businesses to come here and see how you hunker down when things aren’t perfect,” Schiesl says. One of the most pressing issues facing the company is the need to broaden their clientele. Harley’s current ridership is ripening both in affluence and age. They are no longer the young rebels of yesteryear; many are now mature and established professionals, and as they age there’s a danger that there won’t be another generation of Harley riders to adequately fill their shoes.

In order to address this situation, Schiesl says the goals of the museum are twofold. “We clearly want to strengthen our bonds with existing riders by adding new dimensions to the experience,” she says. “But we also wanted to reach out to new people who are not yet part of the Harley-Davidson family and give them a taste of the adventure and camaraderie and personal expression you get with a Harley.”

Attempts have been made to give the exhibit a contemporary feel by using elements that might appeal to a younger generation, such as interactive touch screens. “From a curatorial point of view, they give depth to the exhibits,” says museum curator Jim Fricke. “But they’re fun from a generational point of view because, for kids, it’s just second nature and they can show their parents how to navigate them.”

Another selling point for a younger generation ofmuse um-goers might be the interactive mechanisms in the engine room that allow viewers to explore how an engine works. Fricke believes the collection of bikes themselves best demonstrates how the future of Harley is strongly tethered to the past. “A lot of what people appreciate about the Harley-Davidson is a modern take on a time-tested design,” he says. “One of the things you see throughout the exhibit is the relationship between what was at that point contemporary culture and things that happened within the motor company.”

Using this lens, he concludes, “You can project where we’re going in the future.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com

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Photos by Kevin Gardner


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