The New American Museum – Historic Auto Attractions

Before his circus days, PT Barnum created the American Museum in 1842.  Showcasing the marvels of nature and art, the museum burned down twice, encouraging its founder to find another outlet for his showmanship.  While visiting the Historic Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, IL, I felt an immediate link between the two museums.  

Located in an industrial park, the museum is actually easy to miss.  The red sign helps; you definitely need to keep your eyes peeled.

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Museum

Historic Auto Museum

Since I wasn’t sure about the photography policy, I don’t have any indoor shots.  I’ll share some brochure pictures below.  

The actual collection is much vaster than the name implies.  You will find automobiles, movie star memorabilia, White House furniture, television show sets and props, fashion, including original Oleg Cassini gowns, and country music memorabilia.  You can trace 19th and 20th century social and cultural history in this one space.  

The museum is organized as a spiral, which maximizes the display areas and removes the warehouse feel.  You begin with gangster cars.  Ten feet from one another are John Dillinger’s luxury bank robbing car and Bonnie & Clyde’s sad, small death car.  While books describe the gulf between the two sets of Depression-era criminals, seeing their cars resonates more deeply.

For fashionistas or decorative arts aficionados, the displays allow you to closely view the artifacts and to appreciate the craftsmanship involved.  I wish the museum would rename itself because the collection is so much broader than the name implies.

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Dismissing the museum as a pop culture collection is a mistake.  Yes, there are some misspellings on labels, and some of the wax figures are a bit scary.  HOWEVER, the collection is impeccably maintained.  The space is spotless.  I have never been in such a clean, well-maintained museum space.  Authentication and donor letters are also displayed along side some of the objects – giving you a behind the scenes peek at how museums acquire objects.  Some letters included thank you notes for acquiring and sharing the objects.  

Historic Auto Attractions is a fun museum that will appeal to everyone in a family.  Fashion and decorative arts historians will also find treasures for their research.  Tin sign collectors will enjoy the gift shop.  Museum professionals will also find a space that challenges their truisms and believes in sharing its collection with the public.

Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

If the band/orchestra sucks, flee the theatrical performance immediately.  Even great actors cannot save horrible music.  However, a great band can save you from bad or mediocre actors.  The band for the hypocrites’ Cabaret was amazing.  Supplemented by violin and harmonium, the core piano, bass, percussion, and saxophone were frisky with an undertow of menace.  Kristina Lee, the bassist, was especially skilled at keeping the bass sounding crisp, not muddy (a common problem for bassists).  She and the percussionist, Kevin O’Donnell, playfully interacted and showcased the complexities of the score.  Some of the musical arrangements were a bit simplistic, but the vocal prowess of the actors may have been the reason why.

Cabaret is surprisingly bullletproof, like My Fair Lady or the Lennon-McCartney songbook.  The emotional resonance pulls you through, even when the actors aren’t quite up to the task.  According to the theatre geeks in line behind me, we were enjoying the 1998 re-staging of the show.  No Bob Fosse.  For most theatrical companies, the 1998 version is more manageable.  More bumping and grinding, rather than actual dancing.  The writhing on stage was particularly inspiring to a couple in front of me who made out during every intermission.  During the second intermission, the couple sitting next to Make Out Couple #1 decided that four could play that game and launched at one another.  Very entertaining.

The Emcee (Jessie Fisher) stole the show.  The woman playing the part really understood the need to hint at the fear and desperation that bursts forth from the decadence during the second and third acts.  Alas, the actors playing Sally and Cliff didn’t really delve into their characters, focusing on a surface shallowness and ignoring how both characters are weak and pathetic.  Michael York and Liza Minnelli really were excellent in the movie version and had more script to work with.  The book for this stage production let down the actors a bit.  Some scenes felt rushed or perhaps lines were cut.  The other supporting characters were able to flesh out their characters reasonably well.  Several people did succumb to shout-singing.  Too much American Idol.

the hypocrites at least try to challenge the audience and to interpret the material uniquely.  Some minor characters and plot-lines were more prominently explored.  Unfortunately, those minor characters upstaged the main storyline.  Cliff and Sally were tangential.  An art experience is successful if it provokes thought  and entertains.  While I found their Frankenstein to be a more satisfying theatrical experience, the hypocrites’ Cabaret was an entertaining production.  The band was excellent.

Oppression/Confirmation

I spent most of last week in pharma country, giving presentations to the oppressed souls who foist “medicine” onto the unsuspecting public.  Most of the people in the rooms had the same look of panic, fear, and desperation.  Some aggressively foisted their uncertainties onto the poor vendor (me).  Others appeared resigned to their fate or were making the best of their situation.  The trip definitely confirmed my decision to flee corporate life.

For our intellectual exercise this week, we shall tie the idea of dying empire to the corporate world.  Empires falling are classical historical areas of study, but are typically restricted to nations or tribes.  I argue that corporations are similar.  When the corporation becomes too large or unwieldy, its leaders shift focus from the original goals of the company to merely perpetuating its size.  We must grow larger, assimilate other companies, and expand our power into governments, banks, etc.  Employees live in their own bureaucratic world, ignorant of their counterparts in other departments.  My job is to ensure this form is filled out properly, and I don’t care that my intransigence is derailing a key project.  Team spirit is lost.  We are all cogs in the wheel.  Eventually, the corporation will self-destruct via greed, over-expansion, or chicanery.  (Yeah, I’m cracking out the vocab!  GRE test date is April 2.)  As Rome fell, so fell Tyco, Enron, etc.

For those who prefer a more artistic expression of corporate oppression, the works of Sinclair Lewis, King Vidor’s The Crowd (a film), and Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons explore the ideas of 1) losing oneself in the corporation, 2) the transition from a rural/simple life to the urban/hectic life, and 3) business as an empire.  Orson Welles’ film of Ambersons is excellent, too – though bastardized into a mere 90 minutes.  That’s a topic for another day.

For the historians in the crowd, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is legendary.  Read it now.

I’m thinking about some book reviews for next week.  Maybe my top 10 favorite history books.  We shall see.