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Feature

Our Place in Time

By Elizabeth Gibbens | HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

How have generations of Americans adapted to technology, from cars to Palm Pilots? The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, tackles this question in "Your Place in Time: 20th Century America," a new exhibition that opens December 15, 1999. Together, the museum and the Popular Mechanics, which helped with the exhibition, celebrate the explosion in consumer gadgetry. After the exhibition opens, the magazine will run a series of stories that deal with topics covered in the exhibition.

Technically attuned boomers play a big part in the exhibition, which focuses on the cultural signposts of five generations as they hit adolescence and young adulthood. It moves from the Progressives of the 1900s through the Generation Xers to the youngest, Generation V, who-the museum reports-recognize more brand names than they do politicians.

Reflecting on the Mach 2 velocity of technological development of the late twentieth century, Jay McGill, publisher of Popular Mechanics sees a change in perspective across generations. "You no longer accept, you expect," he says. For baby boomers and Generation Xers, he explains, more powerful machines-especially PCs, laptops, and Palm Pilots-don't hit the market fast enough. "It's expected that technologies become obsolete in two years," McGill adds.

Visitors will learn by seeing, hearing, touching, and feeling the atmospheres their grandparents, parents, and children remember. To represent early times after 1900, for instance, there's a nickelodeon modeled on those in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 1907-1908. Endelman's staff interviewed people who saw movies there and still complained, she says: "It was noisy, because people would read the subtitles out loud to each other, to kids, or to people who couldn't read."

Endelman believes that the theme of generational one-upmanship will attract visitors. She's counting on the irresistible impulse that makes a Gen-Xer sneer in one breath at his mom's avocado-green appliances and, in the next, buy a lava lamp for his apartment.

Designing an exhibition that highlights our intergenerational differences meant involving the public, says Endelman. When she surveyed prospective visitors, she found that the majority liked the idea of a generational approach that looked at how our characters and attitudes are shaped by the times in which we live.

Research in Popular Mechanics' archives and elsewhere delivered dramatic irony to heighten the charm of the approach, Endelman says. Her staff found statements like these:

"The horse and buggy is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad," said the president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, to Horace Rackham, Henry Ford's lawyer.

And around 1916, Charlie Chaplin said, "The cinema is little more than a fad. It's canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood."

Endelman remembers her own struggle inside the museum. "In 1995, I had to explain to the management the need for a website," she recalls.

Generation Xers, Endelman suggests, have realized that we can't anticipate the ways in which machines will evolve. A display titled "Imagining the Future," she says, shows that when we try to prophesy, we fall short.

On its website, http://www.hfmgv.org, the museum will have a survey to collect people's thoughts on what the future has to offer. Popular Mechanics will link to the survey, as well as to the museum's online exhibition tour.

In general, Endelmen says, the younger the generation, the less time it has taken to adjust to new technology. Beginning with Generation X, she observes, "Technology was no longer feared nor revered."

In the exhibition, the back to the land movement and its alternative technologies get their own display. "Everything works around a geodesic dome," says Endelman. "We're looking at people who were trying to reject consumerism, people who were really not trying to be part of the consumer technology explosion."

The museum marks the 1969 lunar landing as a time when ecological issues began to unite boomers with other generations and with science. More people began feeling concern for the environment, Endelman says. And she says that the baby boomers still lead us in addressing them. Now though, they look to technology for some help.