How The New Ford Museum Exhibit Came To Be

by Jim Kratsas, Museum Curator

After three and a half years, the new Ford Museum exhibits are a reality, changing the entire institution's look, feel and story. It has been a long road since the 1993 Ford Foundation Meeting, at which Trustees voted to explore preliminary design concepts for exhibits that would take advantage of new technology and the perspective that twenty years affords the Ford presidency. First, a Core Exhibit Redesign Committee consisting of Trustees Marty Allen, Joe Sweeney, Bob Hooker, Jordan Sheperd, Dick Ford, Museum Liaison Committee member David LaClaire, and Library/Museum staff members Frank Mackaman and Jim Kratsas contacted 13 exhibit design firms from across the country for samples of their work. This field was narrowed to three firms, each of which were invited to Grand Rapids to give presentations.

The Committee concluded that Van Sickle and Rolleri of Voorhees, New Jersey, was the firm which showed the most versatility and promise. The job--and the challenge--was theirs. Yet it was always a team effort. Over the next year, Ford Library and Museum staff worked closely with Dennis Van Sickle to develop the story of Gerald Ford--his life and presidency--and to incorporate this story within some 15,000 square feet of space. Once the preliminary design was completed, the Core Exhibit Redesign Committee met with President and Mrs. Ford in November, 1994.

Van Sickle and Rolleri was then contracted to develop final designs of the exhibits laying out a more in-depth storyline, interactive and video components, and views of finished spaces. At this point, Dennis assembled Team Ford--an all-star cast of fabricators, researchers, video producers, lighting engineers and interactive specialists. They joined Library/Museum staffers, who were already working around the clock, to translate drawing board concepts into visually stunning three dimensional exhibits.

Team Ford excelled. Their work was rewarded at the 1995 Trustees Annual Meeting when the Ford Foundation appropriated over $4 million to complete the project.

Extensive searches around the country for documents, artifacts, video footage and photographs preceded final designs. In July, 1996, production and fabrication began at Maltbie and Associates, the same firm which installed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

We promised the Fords a dynamic museum. The creative process turned out to be even more dynamic than anticipated, especially after Richard Norton Smith came aboard early in 1996. One of his earliest, and best, ideas was to recreate the Ford Paint and Varnish Company as a backdrop for President Ford's early life and career, thereby emphasizing the special impact of Grand Rapids upon its favorite son. As the storyline turned into actual copy, it was given Richard's biographer's touch, personalizing Gerald and Betty Ford for the Museum visitor, and placing both within the historical context of their times.

January 6, 1997 marked the end of the old Museum as the staff dismantled exhibits that had been in place since 1981. For three weeks, ably assisted by maintenance supervisors Bill Grice and Mark Jonick, staffers filled five 50-yard dumpsters with old carpet and cast off materials. The Museum donated a third of its old exhibit walls to the Cedar Springs Museum; a large case was shipped off to the Library in Ann Arbor, where it will be used for future exhibits giving visitors a great deal more information about President Ford than is now available to them.

On February 11, the first of four semitrailers pulled up to the Museum to unload the new exhibits. The next day Maltbie workers began erecting display walls on top of newly installed carpet. By the end of March, graphics and artifacts were going into place, videos were being installed and interactive elements of the new museum were being tweaked.

If all good things are worth waiting for, then the last 3 years have been well spent, indeed. Thanks to the Ford Foundation, its generous supporters around the country, and a superb complement of museum professionals, we are about to unveil a museum worthy of the man it honors, the woman who has so enriched his life and ours, and the ideals to which both the Fords have devoted themselves.

Search the Ford Library & Museum website

Go to the Home Page

Send e-mail to the Ford Museum

[Search | Home Page | E-mail]

Last Updated: Friday, July 10, 1998