Generations of schoolchildren and tourists from across Michigan and the Midwest have fond memories of visiting The Henry Ford complex in suburban Detroit, where America’s cultural, economic, scientific and industrial heritage throb to life.
A premier American history attraction and National Historic Landmark, The Henry Ford is situated on a 250-acre campus featuring 6 venues: Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, Benson Ford Resarch Center, IMAX Theater, and Henry Ford Academy.
A new generation of kids has discovered The Henry Ford via its weekly Saturday morning TV show on CBS, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca, which “showcases present-day change makers from all over the world who are creating solutions for real needs,” as the museum puts it. And, yes, each week the show plugs some aspect of The Henry Ford.
Keeping both the traditional experience and the new media-based outreach vital is important to Patricia Mooradian, who has been CEO of The Henry Ford for 12 years and who continues to lead a sharpening of the brand for the nearly century-old institution that was started by Henry Ford himself.
“Our story is about the American ideas of ingenuity, innovation and resourcefulness,” Mooradian (right) told brandchannel. “To help inspire a better future. What we want to do is help create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. We want to be a place where inspiration happens and where you can understand the past to go forward.”
Its core mission is to tell the story of America’s traditions of innovation, ingenuity and resourcefulness using its collections of more than 26 million artifacts. Its purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions in order to shape a better future. So Mooradian’s focus is on strategic vision and direction, in addition to fundraising, community outreach and institutional positioning.
Its impressive collection includes key pieces of American history: Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory; the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop from Dayton; the chair in which Lincoln was shot; the facade of an early McDonald’s; dozens of American washing machines from across the centuries; farm implements, from a simple horse plow to a house-sized modern combine; the Continental in which Kennedy was killed; and the house where Noah Webster wrote his namesake dictionary— among thousands of others.
Under Mooradian, one of America’s largest museums and brand experiences has continually developed way to create synergies with commercial brand partners for the benefit of both. For instance, Delta has been a “partner in innovation” with The Henry Ford for the museum’s “Heroes of the Sky” exhibition, while The Henry Ford has been a consultant and assisted the airline with its own on-site museum at its Atlanta headquarters.
In the current exhibit running May 27-September 4, The Henry Ford is home to the first-ever exhibit featuring House Industries, itself an iconic creator of fonts and lettering, household decor and textiles—including the logo for the Las Vegas tourism board’s “Only Vegas” campaign, and the logo for Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show.
“Many of the things that House has touched over the years are things that are in our collection, such as lettering for automobiles,” Mooradian explained. “The idea of the story about how a font can explode and go into so many different areas of design is really a story of innovation as well. It’s a great mission-fit opportunity for us.”
In a first for The Henry Ford, on the third Wednesday of July and August (June too), the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation will keep its doors open until 8 p.m. to offer design fans the opportunity to experience the House Industries exhibition with special guests and demonstrations. The “House Industries Happy Hours” will take place 5-8 p.m. Lamy’s Diner will be open for dinner, and a cash bar will be available.
The Henry Ford is a private 501(c)3 that was founded by Henry Ford himself but operates independently from Ford Motor Co. Yet one of Mooradian’s biggest brand affiliations was to work with the automaker to design a museum-sponsored, -curated and -led tour of the actual assembly plant where Ford builds its top-selling F-150 pickup truck just a few miles away.
But while she and The Henry Ford curatorial and marketing teams keep finding new ways to market the relics and keep vital the brick-and-mortar attractions of the museum and outdoor historical village, Mooradian has successfully extended The Henry Ford brand and portfolio into the great digital beyond.
For example, the museum recently signed a deal with Pearson, the educational publishing giant, to develop content for educators, business audiences and others.
“Pearson has something we don’t have—a lot of people to develop curriculum and global distribution channels,” Mooradian explained. “But what we have is primary source content. We have an unbelievable collection of items and stories and fantastic historians and curators and educators and program developers and presenters. The best in the industry are right here. So how can we inspire the world?”
We spoke with Mooradian for more insights on modernizing The Henry Ford brand.
How do you manage and grow a venerable museum brand at a time of such rapid, digital change?
In my mind everything starts with a mission and is all about the story. For a brand you have to start with the story first, and the story of The Henry Ford is pretty deep and wide and very complex. We really start with that and everything about the brand we put forward—communications, exhibitions, everything we do—begins with that and the story of this place. Each venue has its own story and fits into larger story of the institutional brand. That brand document gives ways for everybody to be consistent. If you’re writing a grant or a press release or a letter to a donor, it’s being used.
And what is the story you’re telling?
The Henry Ford is a destination and a force for fueling the spirit of American innovation and creating a ‘can do’ mindset and culture. We believe the stories we tell based on American traditions are really ingrained and embedded in the fabric and DNA of American culture—who we are as Americans. There’s no better time than the present for that story to be more relevant and necessary.
How have you been making The Henry Ford more of that kind of force?
We realized that with changes in technology, we’d be able to take the great stories of this institution and put them out in ways we’d never done before. That was the beginning of a 10-year plan that has morphed and been updated along the way to focus on a platform of innovation and use new technology to get our story and message out. That’s when we began digitization of our collection and using social media. It was relatively new in this world [of museums and cultural organizations].
We also need to be innovative in the way we put our message out. But at end of the day it’s all about our mission and stories to inspire the next generation to make the world a better place. Not only does technology exist to do it, but we have a responsibility and an obligation to create mission-fit experiences on site at the destination, or online, or offsite somewhere. In the midst of putting all of that together and creating that as a vision came four clear goals: sustainability, relevance, community impact and national awareness.
What’s the ultimate goal of expanding and refining the messaging for The Henry Ford?
To really inspire the next generation of innovators … thinkers and doers and people who are going to be the next generation of leaders for this country. That’s what we want to do and we can do it in many ways: inspiring them here, through a lot of programs and activities that we have going on, and all the different ways we reach people in other media.
When the Shell Eco Marathon was in Detroit for three years, for instance, we were their partner in education, and actively engaged them with the schoolchildren they were bringing to Eco Marathon. Our place and our assets provided an opportunity to partner with a like-minded [entity] trying to deliver education in a different way. And they became part of our Maker Faire.
How does the idea of a museum, even a great one like The Henry Ford, work for millennials and with Generation Z?
For the last two years, millennial visitors have grown faster than older populations for the first time. They are bringing their kids here for sure, but we’re also getting a lot of them that don’t have kids, or have kids yet. What’s happening is that we’re specifically creating programs that appeal to the younger generation but that don’t in any way alienate our older population.
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