Monday, June 29, 2009

The Harley-Davidson Museum

Harley-Davidson Museum - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

I paid a visit to The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley a few days ago, and I have to say I just don’t get it.

It was cool. Ultra cool. I was expecting hot.

Harley-Davidson Museum - expensive gift shop - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

The museum anchors a small campus of black cubes of glass and tile. Some of the buildings appear to have their support structure on the outside, their frames seemingly held together from the corners by gray threaded tension members with giant turnbuckles that cross their faces, suggesting a bit the crossbones normally topped by a skull. But no skull.

Harley-Davidson Museum - vistors taking pictures - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

The exposed structure, straight edges and the near-black glass surfaces of the cubes seem intended to reflect an impression of technology and is remarkably free of surface detail and flourishes.

The generic-fonted tile sign that identifies the museum is so enormous that it makes humans look “like little ants.” Or so commented the rider from Allegan, Michigan when he saw the picture I took of him and his lady in front of it.

Harley-Davidson Museum - couple from Allegan - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

The iconic HD shield is literally put in a small steel cage at the far end of the building, along with the statue of, I don’t know, some guy falling off an old Harley.

Harley-Davidson Museum - statue - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

The architecture and graphics strike me as completely out of character, since Harley’s brand rests on creating bikes that appear to have been designed with decades – centuries - old technology. Most Harley riders spend a lifetime bolting on additional “stuff” such as fairings, lights, saddle bags, chrome plated pieces and leather fringe. They are positively exuberant about making their bikes look as flamboyant as possible, as if being really loud was not enough to get noticed.

Harley-Davidson Museum - Sweet Home Chicago - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009

On such a beautiful day to ride, I anticipated a level of excitement and maybe even awe in the riders as they rolled in. But they seemed to be experiencing the same reaction as me.

This is it? Where’s the chrome skull?

Harley-Davidson Museum - Joe from Allegan - Milwaukee, WI - copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2009


  1. Wow....We were there in July and I think maybe you took a wrong turn! Place was fantastic..staff was exceptional ...history was inspiring. I have been a student of everything Harley-Davidson since I was a teenager(now 60)and I spent 3 days and want to go back for 3 more. Did you take time to really
    take it all in? Just wish I lived in Milwaukee..I might go everday at least to every special event.
    I own 6 vintage HD's and spent countless hours just comparing the same year bikes at the museum. The people involved have done a great job setting up the museum.

  2. Hi Anon -

    I understand the exhibits are very good. I was concerned with the buildings and the environment.

    Admittedly, I am not one of the Harley initiated. The only bike I ever owned was a Triumph. Back when they were British ;-) (oil leaks)

    The museum, obviously, got all kinds of great press here (anything Harley does except laying off workers gets great press here.)

    I was expecting the Museum campus to be a little more rough around the edges, fitting to the H-D image. A lot edgier. Maybe even a little intimidating.

    Instead, I thought it was downright corporate. If you removed the logos and the statue of the guy flying off the bike, it could be some software development company or a community college.

    I don't know. I thought there ought to be skulls.

    Glad you enjoyed it, though. Come on back to Milwaukee any time! It's a great place.

    Thanks for your comment!



Thanks for commenting! Double clutch!!