A version of this article appears in print on November 24, 2013, on page AU1 of the New York edition of The New York Times with the headline: Bringing Life To Museums’ Collections.
Amid all the reports of a groundswell of disdain for car culture among young people, it may seem that the automobile is entering its twilight.
But instead of being relegated to dark corners as curious relics, autos — surely one of the most life-changing inventions of the last 150 years — are being celebrated around the world. In recent years, new museums dedicated to the automobile have opened, others have spent millions on renovations that present vehicles in novel ways, and institutions once limited to displays of fine art have discovered the popular appeal of metal, glass, rubber and chrome.
A prime example is the four-year, $40 million restoration and expansion of the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile in Turin, Italy, completed in 2011. Founded in 1932 in the northern city that is the capital of Italian automaking and home of Fiat, the museum moved into a midcentury modern building in the city, not far from Fiat’s Lingotto factory, in 1960.
That building, while striking outside, was a traditional exhibition space inside, with a collection of largely Italian cars parked in rows in dimly lit rooms. The rebuilt structure, now covering more than 200,000 square feet, could well be the archetype for the modern automotive museum. It features galleries created by the Swiss stage designer François Confino, intended for both casual and enthusiast audiences.
“We looked to make the museum speak through the settings and the use of a great deal of interactivity,” Rodolfo Gaffino Rossi, director of the museum, said. “We have a duty to create an easy educational path that will bring the visitor closer to history and to give a message to people who were never interested in cars and are not specialists or fans.”
The Museo Nazionale depicts a historical survey of rolling personal transport starting from a full-scale model of the “car” designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1478 to the latest alternative fuel vehicles. Diorama settings alternate with interactive touch-screen displays, kiosks, an entire home interior made of auto components, film and sound projection, an amusement park-type ride through an auto assembly line and more, all adding up to a lively visitor experience.
Recent news of major changes and developments at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles highlights the challenges and opportunities that institutions face as they prepare to ride a wave of new activity in vehicle exhibition spaces. A shift in leadership and some pruning of the Petersen collection have already begun, while an overhaul of the building’s exterior is in the works as the museum defines its identity as it nears its 20th anniversary.
One of the earliest collections to be established in the United States, now called the Larz Anderson Auto Museum, in Brookline, Mass., opened for public tours in 1927. What visitors in the ’20s saw was much like what people see today: a collection of Victorian and Edwardian automobiles parked beside horse-drawn carriages in their original home, a grand brick 1880s “motor house” on the parklike grounds of an estate.
Changing viewpoints on the display of historically significant cars is readily apparent in the more than 400 cars assembled in Mulhouse, France, by the textile industrialists Hans and Fritz Schlumpf.
The brothers’ collection of rare Bugattis and other exotic cars, once parked on gravel in dusty rows in vast former warehouse rooms, are today displayed on highly polished floors or veneered plinths with bold graphics behind them. The Cité de l’Automobile, National Museum Collection Schlumpf, as it is called, was comprehensively reimagined in 2006, when the operation was taken over by Culturespaces, a private company that manages historic properties in France and Belgium, including art museums in Paris and the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium. A restaurant and a small private racetrack complete the complex.
The trend for the display of vehicles in traditional fine art museums — a relatively recent phenomenon, but an important influence — has to be considered as one of the factors driving this change in approach. That such institutions have opened their galleries to impressive numbers of visitors is not lost on those running auto museums.
The highly successful “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1998, which featured more than 100 motorcycles in a display designed by Frank Gehry, served notice that art museums could create new ways to appreciate the motor vehicle. When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened its 2005 show, “Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars of the Ralph Lauren Collection,” there was little doubt that cars had to be taken seriously.
“The opportunity to view a vintage automobile for its engineering and sculptural beauty is an intriguing experience,” said Peter Mullin, chairman of the Petersen Museum, founder of an executive compensation firm and a collector who heads a museum in Oxnard, Calif., that bears his name. Exhibitions at fine art museums such as “Sensuous Steel” at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville and “Curves of Steel” at the Phoenix Art Museum draw record crowds, he said.
Evert Louwman is the importer for Toyota, Lexus and Suzuki in the Netherlands and owns a museum collection begun by his father in 1934. The Louwman Museum moved into an imposing canal-side building in The Hague, designed by Michael Graves, in 2010. The 108,000 square feet of exhibition space brings visitors through time, from 1880s carriages to 1970s Formula One cars.
Art museums did not influence the design of the Louwman building.
“We did not look at them in our planning, because they are based on who the artist was, not why he made the picture,” Mr. Louwman said. “That story — the love around why a car was made — is key to the message of a car museum.”
Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, says he feels it is natural for cars to be shown as art. “Automobiles, like other objects in our daily lives, can be examples of how art can be used to transform your life, an outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts movement.”
As competition for visitors and support among arts organizations becomes sharper and the number of choices grows, museum leaders are realizing the need for their institutions to stay fresh.
“Twenty years ago, when the museum opened, there was no such thing as an interactive display,” said Terry Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “With all of the quick, effective and entertaining methods for obtaining information today, museums have to change. They have to be a showcase for information dissemination and the creation of enthusiasm.”
Bruce Meyer, a founding board member of the Petersen, emphasized the need for a museum to remain relevant. “If you stay in the same groove, you’ll burn out and people won’t return.”
In searching for ways to attract and hold visitors, Mr. Louwman said that the narrative was the key. “We have to tell a story, whether that of the design of a teardrop Delahaye from the 1930s, the technology of electric cars from before 1900 or the first VW Golf.”
This approach is the one that defines the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia. Centered on racing cars, a majority of its collection comes from the historic competition vehicles donated to the foundation in 2008 by Frederick A. Simeone, a neurosurgeon.
For Dr. Simeone, a leading proponent of preservation and conservation in vehicle collecting, the highest calling of an auto museum is “to preserve and protect the finest original examples of the best automobiles created, in order to educate the public and to share a compelling history.”
In the Simeone displays, interactivity is not about touch screens, but can be found in the regularly scheduled demonstration days at the museum in which the priceless vintage cars, some over 100 years old, are started and driven for the public in a space beside the museum.
LeMay — America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Wash., based on a portion of the 3,500 cars of the collection of Harold LeMay, who died in 2000, and his wife, Nancy, opened in a new 165,000-square-foot building in June 2012. David Madeira, its director, says he feels strongly that you don’t have to be a car person to have an emotional relationship with cars.
“The first family car you remember when you were 5 years old, the family summer car trip, your first car, first date in a car, all will start a conversation and provoke a memory,” he said. “All of a sudden, everyone’s telling ‘a car story.’ ”
The changing role of museums may be forcing the institutions to reconsider their names.
“Some are even dropping the word museum,” Mr. Karges of the Petersen said. “Think of the Getty, MoMA. They’ve modernized their names to reflect changing roles in showing and sharing extraordinary objects.”