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Change and innovation are key, suggests exhibit at Henry Ford Museum

HAROLD SKRAMSTAD, president of the Henry Ford Museum, likes to say he's in the business of helping to create "successful people."

That's a rather grand-sounding goal for the operator of a museum - even one as expansive as the 14-acre layout here in Dearborn - and Mr. Skramstad agrees that his ideas could strike some as "arrogant."

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But unless museum-goers are inspired to rethink the way they live and work - and are given some ideas that might lead toward useful changes - the institution hasn't done its job, according to Skramstad. The Henry Ford Museum's newest exhibit - "Made in America" - embodies this concept.

The exhibit, which opened two months ago as a permanent part of the museum, traces the development of American industrial might, starting with the present and working backward to the earliest murmurings of the Industrial Revolution in England. Assembling and organizing the exhibit required, first, a massive "land-clearing" operation that absorbed a big part of the project's $6 million budget.

The old "used car-lot approach" to displaying artifacts had to give way to Skramstad's new vision - though some items, like the extraordinary early steam engines collected by the museum's founder and namesake, couldn't be moved. They're embedded in the building's foundation.

The museum has no continuing connection to the Ford Motor Company. Money for the exhibit had to be raised through various private sources, and it took about a year and a half.

Car metaphors, however, are inevitable in this setting. "All we have is a rear-view mirror," Skramstad says. "We use that to jump beyond history - to be liberated by history." Among the first jumping-off points in the exhibit is a robotic arm used to paint cars. From there the displays lead their viewers back through time to the original Ford production line.

A Model T, broken into its parts, is suspended in mid-air. That simple car required 7,000 components to assemble, says Skramstad's collaborator, museum curator William Pretzer. "That's why it was such a prototype for future mass production."

But the fundamental lesson from such epochal innovations, he adds, is the constancy of change.

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"The content of change and its impact - how liberating it is - is what's at issue. The fact of change is not at issue," Mr. Pretzer asserts. Lots of industrial giants don't recognize this fact and consequently suffer, he says. Look at IBM, General Motors, Sears.

As you work back through time, Skramstad says, the question has to arise, "Where have all the workers gone?"

Some companies concluded that technology could replace people, he says, and they were wrong. "People are always the key." They contribute not only flexible skills, but also ideas, he notes.

If new ideas are not allowed to percolate to the surface, industries stagnate, Skramstad and Pretzer say. Consider Ford's great achievement, the mass-produced Model T. It was so successful that the company clung to it long after its competition - the upstart General Motors Corporation - came out with updated car models and stole much of the market. Ford finally moved on to the Model A, but it was late in the game.

Going past films depicting factory life in the early 20th century and the experiences of immigrant workers, Skramstad relates how Henry Ford's offer of $5 a day at his River Rouge plant in Dearborn - good money in those days - drew thousands to the Detroit area.

But even that had a downside, he says. People become so accustomed to assured work on the production line that they rarely thought beyond it. Detroit high schools didn't hold a job fair for students until 1981, the museum president says. "Again, it was the inability to see change."

Peering into a reproduction of a 19th-century cooper's shop, Pretzer reflects that the exacting skills required then are "both similar and dissimilar to those taught kids today who may have to run a robot shop." The skills needed today have moved a long way beyond those needed on a production line, he explains. In the computer age, we're tending again toward production that puts a premium on individual craftsmanship, in his view.

Skramstad and Pretzer liken the wide variety of items in the exhibit, including many displays that invite visitors' participation, to "a whole team of teachers coming at a subject in different ways."

THE culmination of a tour of "Made in America," perhaps, is encountering an adjoining "artifact" that sprang totally from the museum planners' imagination. ("If you don't have something that does what you want, you create it," Skramstad says.) It's called the Innovation Station, and it's essentially a large platform with work stations scattered around it.

Groups of visitors are divided into small teams whose job it is to get hundreds of colored balls up ramps, through sorters, and finally into the right bins.

The exhibit teaches teamwork, good communication, risk-taking, and other elements of successful innovation, the museum's president and curator say. Pretzer compares it to Thomas Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. (reproduced in another part of the museum), which was a grouping of small units that kept in constant touch with each other.

"You can't be too uptight here," Skramstad says. "We call it play, in recognition that innovation requires a kind of playful attitude."

That attitude, in fact, is evident in Skramstad's and Pretzer's approach to their own work.

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