American Museum & Gardens latest exhibition: The American Road Trip

From driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles to following the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway as you travel from Washington D.C. to Nashville, The American Road trip has become a rite of passage. Kate Hebert, Chief Curator, and Harriet Wilson, Exhibitions and Interpretation Officer at the American Museum & Gardens share their thoughts about the museum’s new exhibition…

One of the things that we notice when people visit the American Museum & Gardens is that they are keen to tell us about their own experiences in America. Everyone has a story to share and often these stories centre around holidays and road trips. This got us thinking that it would be fun to create an exhibition in which people were invited to share their experiences. American Road Trip has been a really collaborative experience and is the culmination of lots of individual conversations.

The best thing about working on this exhibition has been getting to hear so many incredible road trip stories from members of our community, and beyond. These include getting stuck in the middle of the Arizona desert, to befriending a group of Norwegian tourists on a Hell’s Angel experience, and travelling thousands of miles following the rock band Grateful Dead, everyone’s experience is totally unique.

Denali National Park and Preserve, Kent Miller. NPS Photo

Collaborating to create the exhibition
Working with exhibition designers Smith and Jones has been so rewarding. We chose them as we like to work with local businesses and they are based in Spike Island, Bristol. We also loved their approach, which felt contemporary and exciting. Their focus on interpretation has been vital in helping us to refine and shape this topic.

As a team we are juggling multiple exhibition projects at once, but with this project we’ve been able to fully immerse ourselves in research, connect with a wealth of experts – including input and feedback from our resident road trip expert David Cornwell, and the team at Haynes Motor Museum – and collect lots of amazing road trip stories from staff members, volunteers and other community members.

The American Road Trip is such a huge topic, so Smith and Jones have been incredible at helping us streamline our ideas into a final exhibition which we all feel our visitors will love.

Creating an interactive experience
It was important to us that this exhibition included opportunities for visitors to contribute to the content. So early on we discussed ways in which we could include response sections – this means our visitors become guest curators and the content is ever-changing as new people visit. Road trips are opportunities for shared experiences, so we wanted this exhibition to encourage social interactions and to recreate some of the sense of discovery that you encounter on a road trip. That’s where the interactive elements are crucial.

When we plan in our exhibitions we look for a mix of more traditional museum-style exhibitions and those that are designed to be more immersive and family-friendly. With all our exhibitions we encourage visitor feedback and use this to help plan future exhibitions and changes to our permanent displays.

Incorporating music and theatre
Our amazing road trip expert David Cornwell has spent months crafting the perfect road trip playlist. He has put together a mix of familiar road trip favourites like Get your Kicks on Route 66 as well as some off-the-radar tunes that will appeal to musical connoisseurs.

In terms of lighting, roadside business owners quickly learned that the easiest way to encourage drivers to stop and spend was by attracting them with oversized characters, gigantic billboards, and curious places of interest. The entire route effectively became an open-air amusement park. After dark, business owners needed a new way of enticing customers, so they used neon to light up the road. The exhibition is packed full of iconic light-up signs and structures.

Above: Greetings from Arizona, Tichnor Bros Inc, c. 1930–1945, Boston Public Library

The exhibition narrative
The exhibition begins with a brief history of the American Road Trip and a commentary on the earliest trips – which were not on tarmac but steel rails. By 1869 railroads crossed America, providing the opportunity for wealthy Americans to experience the nation’s richly diverse landscape as part of a carefully managed package.

As automobile ownership became more affordable in the 1920s, the popularity of road trips soared. Motorists making long journeys would find a pleasant spot along the route, pull over, and either set up a tent or sleep in their car. This ‘autocamping’ craze led to the creation of motor hotels, or ‘motels’.

As the highway system was improved it opened up new opportunities for making money, from truckers moving goods, to families moving to new states in search of better jobs.

The road trip reached its heyday in the decades following the end of World War II, due to increases in car ownership, disposable income, and paid leave. Business owners were quick to recognise the opportunities of this boom in road travel, and motels, diners, gas stations, and gift shops became common roadside delights. The idea of an American road trip remains popular today, as seen in books, movies and music.

Neon sign for the Supai Motel at dusk, Seligman, Arizona, Carol Highsmith, 2016, Library of Congress

The automobile and the promise of freedom
For Black motorists in the mid-20th century, the automobile’s promise of freedom coexisted with the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination. Instead of seeing where the road would take them, a road trip required careful planning. In the exhibition we explore the amazing history of Victor Green’s The Green Book, which was a lifeline for Black Americans navigating across the country, showing safe spaces to eat, sleep, refuel, and be entertained. Visitors will be able to look through several facsimile copies – including the 1964 international edition which mentions Bath!

The exhibition also explores the exploitation of Indigenous American culture along the roadside. When it was constructed, Route 66 tore through the lands of more than 25 individual tribal nations. Native American stereotypes were used as a major lure for tourists all along the highway. Travellers were presented with inaccurate, and often offensive, images inspired by popular Hollywood films. As business owners thrived on the exploitation of Indigenous American cultures and history, they were simultaneously excluding Indigenous People from many of their businesses. Signs declaring ‘no dogs, no Indians’ were hung in roadside shop windows.

A final thought from the curators
The draw of the American landscape, and the opportunity to experience it for real, will always call people to the road. From arid deserts to pine tree laden mountainsides, swampy bayous to coastal views, as well as the sense of space and the beckoning of open roads, America promises a road trip full of discovery.

The American Road Trip exhibition is open to the public from 9 March to 31 December 2024, Tuesday to Sunday, 10am–5pm (last entry at 4pm). It is also open on Bank Holidays and Mondays during Bath & North East Somerset school holidays. The American Museum & Gardens, Claverton Manor, Claverton Down, Bath;