Behind Closed Doors: Harley-Davidson Museum’s Archives

Go behind the scenes with a visit to the Harley-Davidson Archives.

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by Dain Gingerelli
Outside the Harley-Davidson Museum at night.

Whether you’re a diehard Harleyphile or someone who simply enjoys motorcycles of all brands, shapes, sizes and colors, a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is well worth the trip.

The imposing structure, an edifice to the blue collar industries that helped forge Midwest America’s can-do spirit during the 20th century, is set on a 23-acre complex in Milwaukee’s original industrial heartland where a forest of factory smokestacks once dominated the skyline.

The museum’s huge steel girders supporting expansive window panes mimic the massive factories that crowded this stretch of Wisconsin’s lakeside landscape years ago when the Harley-Davidson Motor Company joined other Milwaukee-based industries (and breweries!) to fight — and win — two world wars, survive the Great Depression and later fend off price-point competition created by cheap labor from abroad. Indeed, the H-D Museum is all that, and more, paying homage not only to its namesake but to motorcycling in general. Granted, most of the exhibits celebrate the Bar & Shield, an iconic logo that’s aged well during the past century, but museum staff and volunteers still manage to shake out jingoistic fervor in favor of a passion that extends to all brands of motorcycles. Even so, exhibits and dioramas typically include the words “Harley-Davidson” and “Motor Company,” even “Bar & Shield,” for a reason — this is the Harley-Davidson Museum.

But there’s more to the museum’s story than just static and interactive displays and exhibits that consume the 130,000 square feet of floor space inside. There’s also the untold story of what’s collectively referred to by Motor Company employees as the Corporate Archives, what essentially constitutes the museum’s back room of collectibles, memorabilia, historic documents and art work, plus about two-thirds of The Motor Company’s entire collection of historic and landmark Harley-Davidson motorcycles that’s held in reserve because, simply, there’s not enough floor space to fit them all in the main exhibit hall at one time. Consequently, bikes are periodically rotated in and out of the museum’s exhibit arena; those “off the clock” are temporarily stored to await a future date back on the exhibit floor, or for loan to a related event or other museum.

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