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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Harley-Davidson’s ‘Open Road’

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Remember those family vacations, piled into the family car and heading out to a summertime destination, along the way encountering all sorts of roadside attractions (World’s Largest Ball of Twine, perhaps)? Whether or not you’re getting ready for one of these this summer, “The American Road” exhibition at the Harley-Davidson Museum will whet your appetite for adventure.

The exhibition’s story starts in the 1920s and ’30s when more and more people took to the road and possibilities opened up for extended periods of travel. One of the centerpieces of this early part of the show is a “house car” from the 1930s, designed by Brooks Stevens. Its curved, streamlined design looks like it could take off for the mountains or the moon.

American car culture was booming in the postwar years. With more money and vacation time, families on the road helped the proliferation of roadside attractions and tourist businesses, including restaurants, resorts and hotels. The exhibition is wonderfully designed to incorporate all manners of vintage objects like signs from service stations and restaurants. Entertainment for hours of travel is presented with games like “Spot A Car Bingo.” The exhibition also spotlights cowboy and Western themes of pop culture in the 1950s, which are used to create a metaphor for travel being the modern evolution of the American pioneer spirit. It is an interesting notion that side trips from the historical survey of the exhibition.

While “The American Road” travels a largely chronological path, it detours after the period of the 1960s and becomes something of a different exhibition altogether. This is where motorcycles enthusiasts will once again feel they have come to the home of Harley-Davidson, as the story of the Lincoln Highway, the first continuous transcontinental road in the U.S., is described and rediscovered by a team of modern bikers.

Whatever your set of wheels may be, this is a fun exhibition for a little excursion through tourism history. There are 4,092,729 miles of roads in the United States, and this exhibition suggests there is a unique story for each one.

“The American Road” continues through Sept. 1, at the Harley-Davidson Museum (400 W. Canal St.).