November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
The New York City Fire Museum is in a century-old firehouse on Spring Street. Inside, there is some supremely handsome machinery: hand pumpers, steam pumpers with their heroic nickeled boilers, early internal-combustion-powered trucks whose squared-off snouts look part toylike, part martial. And in a room next to them is a glass case filled with dusty rubbish. Here one can see fragments of what look like plumbing fixtures, a garden trowel, broken this and rusty that. All of it is deeply, wrenchingly fascinating, because this is detritus from the World Trade Center. The trowel was used to sift through the wreckage; a riveted triangular piece of metal is a flake of skin from one of the airplanes.
What makes this miscellany hypnotic is authenticity. The piece of airplane isn’t representative of a typical airplane fragment; it is a fragment of one of the planes that brought down the towers.
When I saw this display recently, I’d just been reading William S. Pretzer’s story of the finding and preservation of the Montgomery, Alabama, city bus that Rosa Parks was riding on December 1, 1955, when the driver asked her to move to the back and she refused, and history began to turn on one of its massive, invisible pivots. What made me think of the bus while looking at the artifacts of a very different national turning point was that I recalled the protests when the Henry Ford Museum announced it had acquired the bus at a cost 856 times what the previous owner had paid. A typical response: “You pay $400,000 for a crappy old bus that ‘might’ be the Rosa Parks bus—who cares?”
Henry Ford would have cared. The museum he founded everywhere reflects his deep interest in the physical connection between an object and its history. When he moved Thomas Edison’s laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, to his Greenfield Village outside Detroit, he made sure to bring a trainload of the soil the lab had stood on. And when the modest frame house Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in came from Dayton, Ohio, Ford had the concrete knocked out from between the foundation stones and reground to bind those same stones together in Michigan.
There is a literal-mindedness about this that somehow approaches the mystical. It’s a kind of totemism, I suppose; if so, it’s one I certainly understand. When I was little and asked my father about ghosts, he told me, “I don’t believe in them, but they scare me.” I don’t believe that the spirit of a human moment can actually adhere to a relic of that moment. But the relic moves me nonetheless.
Which would you rather visit: a courthouse where Abraham Lincoln argued cases or a courthouse similar to ones in which he argued? (You can see that in Ford’s endlessly amazing village too. I mean, of course, the actual courthouse.)
I’m glad for several reasons that what I’m still having trouble calling “the Henry Ford” (a recent name change to encompass the entity formed by what its letterhead calls “Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, IMAX Theatre, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, Benson Ford Research Center”) acquired the Rosa Parks bus. The institution is an eccentric and immensely important establishment reflecting the spirit of an eccentric and immensely important man. It is a great pleasure to visit, and a good deal of that pleasure comes from the determination of its founder to get the real grout from the Wrights’ basement, to get the real microbes in Edison’s Jersey earth. Sure, it’s just dirt, just concrete, but we know where it has been, and the fact that it’s been there gives it the kind of power that I’ll bet a million people feel and understand when they sit in the seat that Rosa Parks refused to quit 50 years ago.