“Motoring Through Edgewater”: A Review

The following review evaluates the newest exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society, located at 5358 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago. The museum is open to the public from 1-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Housed in a decommissioned fire station turned historical society, “Motoring Through Edgewater” occupies most of the building’s first floor and is bordered by smaller, locally-oriented exhibits.  The historical society brims with a strong sense of local pride and history, and “Motoring Through Edgewater” reflects that energy.  At its best, the exhibit creatively uses archival materials to connect local history to broader stories of historical and contemporary significance. Although missing rich opportunities to utilize existing scholarship on gender and automobile culture, the exhibit nevertheless epitomizes the value of local history to foster enthusiasm about a community’s past.

IMG_4195The introductory panel represents the strength of the exhibit by connecting a national obsession with automobiles and automobile races to the emergence of Edgewater’s Northside Motor Row. Flanked by a mannequin dressed in the attire of an early woman driver, a chart showing the increase of automobiles in Chicago, and a colorful Oldsmobile advertisement, the panel provides an aesthetically exciting opening to the exhibit.  The advertisement contains the first of several references to Edgewater Beach Hotel, a landmark of local pride important enough to warrant its own exhibit in the entrance of the historical society.

IMG_4196Then, a bold, colorful Sanborn Map of Edgewater’s Motor Row (Broadway Avenue) dominates the southern wall.  Historical photographs, historical advertisements, and contemporary photographs surround the map, illustrating the changing urban landscape of Motor Row. The historical photographs demonstrate change over time, while the advertisements creatively fill in the gaps where no historical photographs remain of past buildings. The panel also introduces several founders of notable cab companies who started their business on Motor Row. Contemporary photographs display evidence of the past that remains along Broadway Avenue and the labels occasionally reference continuing preservation efforts.  This place-based panel jumps around chronologically, reproducing the effect of a contemporary city street with both an invisible and visible past.

The rest of the exhibit is arranged thematically, with section titles like “Off to the Races,” “See You at the Auto Salon,” “Women on the Road,” and “Edgewater on the Road.”  Adjacent panels on “The Parking Nuisance” and “License and Registration!” emerge as one of the strongest sections.  It connects artifacts from Edgewater to early city policies regarding parking and registration, while also referencing contemporary life in Chicago. A collection of license plates from each decade of the twentieth century also visually demonstrates change over time.

The exhibit clearly benefits from a wealth of artifacts, especially photographs. The layout and visual aesthetics of the exhibit highlights the strong archival collection with muted backdrops and minimalist framing.  The exhibit also maximizes the limited space available.  Visitors can peruse the room at their leisure, benefitting from a logical yet flexible spatial flow. The exhibit aesthetically blends with the rest of the Edgewater Historical Society, which similarly makes use of a small space to convey a lot of information without overwhelming the visitor.

IMG_4201“Motoring Through Edgewater” also incorporates several interactive components, including a cardboard cut-out of a 1914 Stutz Bear Cat for visitor photographs and a case that challenges the visitor to identify automobile artifacts.  A “Kids Korner” features books and games about historical cars. A few object labels ask visitors for more information on local buildings or people. Given the limited space for the exhibit, the purposeful inclusion of interactive components represents a healthy commitment to visitor engagement.

Although the exhibit demonstrates strong archival research, it remains light on interpretation and scholarship. Many of the thematic sections lack central interpretative labels to orient the visitor and rarely make use of the rich historiography available on the topic.  For example, “See You at the Auto Salon,” neglects to clearly define “Auto Salon” or its historical significance.  The panel references beauty pageants and car shows but misses the opportunity to draw parallels regarding “bodies” on display. A panel on car culture simply remarks that “there is no doubt that automobiles have transformed our community, and permeated our culture.” Instead of relying on presumably self-evident statements, the exhibit would greatly benefit from a thorough discussion of how automobiles transformed the local community and national culture.  Similarly, the section focusing on “Women on the Road” misses an opportunity to explore the connection between women drivers and the archetype of the New Woman in the early twentieth century or between car advertisements and changing gender roles in American history.

IMG_4208“Motoring Through Edgewater” may leave some visitors yearning for not only more interpretation, but also a big idea to walk away with or a clear sense of change over time. The exhibit seems to generally focus on the early twentieth century, but also includes objects from mid-century or today without interpretation.  For example, the exhibit displays historical copies of safe driving manuals alongside brochures from today’s Secretary of State for visitors to take without offering interpretation to highlight historical parallels or differences. The overall effect of the exhibit suggests a monolithic car culture throughout the twentieth century, thus neglecting important historical themes like social change and contestation, technology over time, or automobiles’ impact on the environment.

Nevertheless, “Motoring Through Edgewater” functions very well within the venue. The exhibit provides a beneficial experience for Edgewater residents looking for historical meaning in the built environment in which they live, seeking local touch-points of historical significance like the Edgewater Beach Hotel, or satiating a curiosity in automobile artifacts and memorabilia.

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