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New Work: Harley-Davidson Museum

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Harley-Davidson kicks off a four day celebration of its 105th anniversary tomorrow as riders and Harley enthusiasts from all over the country converge on Milwaukee. Concerts, street parties and organized rides will be taking place throughout the city, with many of the events being held at the Pentagram-designed Harley-Davidson Museum. Having only opened in mid-July, celebrants will be some of the first to experience the museum’s permanent exhibition, designed by Abbott Miller and his team, as they have the opportunity to explore the history, engineering and cultural impact of this American icon.

Developed in close coordination with the building’s design, and working closely with the museum’s curatorial staff, Miller developed an exhibit design narrative that conveyed the stories the curatorial staff wanted to tell. These stories were best told through both a chronological and thematic narrative that unfolds within the building — and through the display of 145 bikes from the company’s extensive archive.

A tour of the exhibition after the jump.

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The Harley-Davidson story begins on the museum’s upper level with a striking array of premier bikes all arrayed down the center of the museum’s main hall. This “road” was central to the exhibition’s design concept and serves to link the floors as it follows visitors to the end of their journey.

Along the way, visitors encounter a series of galleries that present the history of the Motor Company from its founding to the present, as told through motorcycles, posters, photographs and printed ephemera. A series of elegant slatted walls create an intimate setting for the story, punctuated by large-scale images, film clips and interactive story displays. On the upper level, two large galleries flank the main hall, the first of which is the Engine Room that presents the V-Twin engine as the technological, symbolic and visual heart of Harley-Davidson. As visitors enter the gallery, they see a motorcycle in profile, and as they move further into the space, the motorcycle is revealed as a series of “slices” that coalesce into a unified image, with the V-twin engine at its center. A dramatic canted wall arrays the evolution of the engine and provides an interactive console that brings the machine to life.

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In the second large gallery, devoted to racing clubs and rallies, a dramatically curved wooden structure replicates a board track, the wooden racing courses upon which riders raced at speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour on motorcycles without brakes. The board track displays a series of racing bikes animated by an intermittent wash of vintage footage of actual races. The gallery is dominated by a large display case in the center that arrays colorful jackets, pennants and memorabilia from various clubs and rallies. At the opposite end of the space, four vintage hill-climbers race up a sloped wall that was braced during construction to replicate the extreme inclines that hill-climbers endured. The second floor galleries conclude with Harley’s major role as a producer of equipment for World War II.

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The upper floor also features the Gas Tank Gallery, repurposed from the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour designed by Miller in 2003. The tour, 60,000 square feet of exhibition space all housed within a custom designed circular tent and two shed-style tents, was a yearlong traveling exhibition that stopped in ten cities all over the world. As fuel tanks are one of the most distinctive features of a Harley, the company’s styling department selected 100 memorable tank graphics, spanning almost seventy years of the company’s history, to be reproduced on contemporary “Fat Bob” tanks.

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As visitors descend to the lower level, the galleries change tempo, showing shifts in the style of the motorcycle and the identity of riders and enthusiasts. The exhibits in this area give the company’s post World War II era a cultural perspective. One exhibit focuses on the importance of the buy-back, the historic moment when a group of 13 committed executives bought the company back from AMF and charted its resurgence. This story is told in a multiple screen narrative of interviews with executives and employees who lived through the buy-back. The galleries conclude with a focus on customers and employees and how their loyalty has contributed to Harley-Davidson’s success.

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The thematic galleries on the lower level include a dramatic Customization Gallery, an exhibition of the brilliantly accessorized, customized and radicalized motorcycles created by hardcore Harley enthusiasts, including the 13-foot-long King Kong motorcycle, a rhinestone-encrusted motorcycle and other extreme style statements. Flanking the Customization Gallery, visitors can see clips and artifacts that detail the outsider image of bikers as portrayed in film.

The lower level literally erupts with a massive bridge that rises up from the floor to display, on one side, stunt motorcycles, hill-climbers and drag racers, and on the other side, footage of extreme motorcycling activities such as flat track, drag, hill-climb racing and stunts and precision riding. This dramatic moment creates the effect of a plaza where visitors can see the expanse of the building and observe the large-scale screen display.

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From this central location, visitors proceed through the Design Studio, a lab-like environment that tells the story of how Harley-Davidson design and engineering are synthesized in the development of new motorcycles. The visitor’s journey concludes with an opportunity to get on a vintage Harley-Davidson and experience the look, sound and feel firsthand. In this soaring space, the motorcycles face a dramatic panoramic screen that provides an immersive experience of the open road. While nothing can replicate the experience of riding, this opportunity is meant to bring audiences a step closer to understanding the unique thrill of motorcycling and the distinct voice of Harley-Davidson.

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Project Team: Abbott Miller, partner-in-charge; Jeremy Hoffman, associate; Michelle Reeb; Robert de Saint Phalle; Brian Raby.

Photography: Paul Warchol, Tim Hursley.