Monday, December 1

GM's Smithsonian exhibit

When I noticed that the new transportation exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History was sponsored by General Motors, along with State Farm Insurance, Exxon Mobile, and AAA, I wondered how this exhibit would be presented. I pretty much expected to see a gradual narrative of technological progress culminating in a glorious automobile age of unbridled freedom of mobility. After all, GM was the same corporation that sponsored the famous Futurama exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair casting this essential mythology of the American Dream into the future. Would not a complementary retrospective fit nicely into the arc of history?

But the story the exhibit told was quite different - much more honest actually.

From the plaque, "The Automobile and the City":

"In the 1950's, as new suburbs prospered and spread across postwar America, cities suffered. Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crisis. Transit systems lost riders and money and traffic jammed city streets ..."

And from another subtitled "sprawling metropolis":

"A rapidly growing dependence on the car helped reshape life in American cities and suburbs after World War II. It created the suburban landscapes and culture that have come to dominate much of contemporary American life ... Local and national transportation policy often encouraged suburbanization, to the detriment of older cities."

It's also worth noting that the "Interstate Era" was delineated from 1956 to 1990. It begs the question: what comes next?

1 comment:

LH said...

Fascinating, especially in light of GM's direct contribution to "the Interstate Era" (wasn't it the chair of GM who Eisenhower picked to chair the commission that would determine whether massive federal subsidies of interstate highways would be a good idea?). Thanks for sharing, I will have to check this out next I'm in town!