A Look Inside The Harley-Davidson Museum

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by Jessica Tighe

As Harley-Davidson celebrates its 110th anniversary, there's a place in Milwaukee where you can immerse yourself in everything Harley! At the Harley-Davidson museum you can walk through history and even hop on a Harley!

Right away, in the first room, you'll see something unique. It’s the oldest known Harley-Davidson in the world!

"This is one of the few motorcycles that we have under glass in the museum and the reason why is not so much that it's very valuable, but that we wanted to give it a special feel,” Kristen Jones, a curator at the museum explains.

The Vice President of the Museum says he gets goose bumps every time he walks in the room. "That motorcycle… it represents the beginning of an unbelievable success story, the beginnings of an iconic brand that all over the world is creating a community of people of all walks of life,” Bill Davidson says with misty eyes.

The bike’s nickname is “number one.” The founders built the bike in a small shed behind the Davidson family home. That’s where it all began! The shed was so shockingly small they decided to illustrate the size with illuminations on the museum floor.

"Ten feet by 15 feet. These were the dimensions of the shed- very small! The reason why the founders were able to do what they did in this very small space was because Milwaukee was the machine shop of the world at the time,” Jones says.

As you walk through the museum, you'll see motorcycles from 1903 to now. It's an impression collection and one Bill Davidson, great grandson of founder William A. Davidson, says wouldn't have been possible without the foresight of the founders.

"They made the decision to pull a significant model off the assembly line from every year that we've been in production and that's the reason we have 110 years of representative motorcycles from every single model year," he explains.

Prior to opening the museum in 2008 nothing was on display, but the company had a strong desire to share its treasures with the world.

"When you look at each one of these motorcycles, each one depicts a story. So if you really absorb all of those stories, you could spend several days here,” Davidson says.

Indeed you could! First you learn about the founding of the company. Later, you see its growth.

“So for instance, one of the big watershed moments is 1933 and that's when we turned to styling of the bikes and new color options came out. Before that, motorcycles were just to get you from point A to point B,” Jones explains.

Another pivotal time period you’ll learn about is the 1940s. The WLA bike helped Harley-Davidson survive the war and made people in other countries familiar with the brand. The tour is like a ride through history on a Harley!

Walk downstairs and fast forward to today. See the tsunami bike, the rhinestone Harley and the extreme racing exhibit. You don't have to own a Harley to enjoy it at the museum. In fact, only 25 percent of the people who tour the museum do.

“The core story is motorcycles and motorcycling, but people can trace the history of graphic design through our advertising. They could look at advancements in technology through our displays. There's something for everyone,” Jones says excitedly.

The museum also wants you to get involved. You can take pictures and have a hands-on experience. At one of the interactive exhibits you can build your own bike on a computer and watch it come to life on the TV screens above. When you’re done with the tour you can actually hop on a Harley!

"It is so much fun to watch people because they get so absorbed into it and I've seen people sit there for 10, 15, 20 minutes when they're just engaged and it's wonderful, just wonderful,” Davidson says with a huge smile on his face.

As Harley-Davidson celebrates its 110-th anniversary, the museum celebrates its fifth-- five years of showcasing an American icon that started with four founders in Milwaukee.

"I don't think they knew what it would be today. I do think they realized they had something special,” Davidson says.


If you want to go to the Harley-Davidson museum during the 110th Anniversary Celebration, you need to make a reservation. You can go online to see if there’s still a slot available for your preferred time.
 

The museum is located at 400 West Canal Street in Milwaukee. Admission is 18 dollars for adults, kids are 10 dollars and children under five are free.

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