A quick con­ver­sa­tion about rhine­stones, wine cool­ers, and elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cles with the keeper of Har­ley-david­son’s flame

Motorcyclist - - Shift - BY AARON FRANK

PRIOR TO AC­CEPT­ING the po­si­tion as cu­ra­to­rial di­rec­tor at the then-un­der-con­struc­tion Har­ley-david­son Mu­seum in 2004, Jim Fricke spent 12 years per­form­ing a sim­i­lar role at Seat­tle’s Ex­pe­ri­ence Mu­sic Project (now the Mu­seum of Pop Cul­ture). Fricke moved to Mil­wau­kee just be­fore The Mo­tor Com­pany signed on the mu­seum prop­erty, and in the in­ter­ven­ing 14 years, he and his staff have cre­ated one of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar mu­se­ums—a sprawl­ing, 130,000-square-foot cam­pus that con­tains around 500 mo­tor­cy­cles and hun­dreds of thou­sands of ar­ti­facts from Har­ley-david­son’s 115-year his­tory. It de­lights more than 300,000 vis­i­tors from around the world each year.

1 His­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance aside, do you have any per­sonal fa­vorite items that re­ally stand out to you from the col­lec­tion?

This might sound like a cop-out, but my fa­vorite thing is the col­lec­tion. All of it, in all of its in­cred­i­ble glory. The busi­ness doc­u­men­ta­tion, mar­ket­ing lit­er­a­ture, pe­ri­od­i­cals, mem­o­ra­bilia, rid­ing gear, dealer and club ma­te­ri­als—and of course, the fan­tas­tic ve­hi­cles. The pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tion is a seem­ingly bot­tom­less well of beauty and in­for­ma­tion. Ev­ery time I go dig­ging for some­thing, I find more new fa­vorite things. When I’m try­ing to fig­ure out why the founders made a de­ci­sion or started an ini­tia­tive, I can go straight to the hand­writ­ten meet­ing min­utes, read the type­script of a Wal­ter David­son speech, page through news clip­pings, or pull out a bound vol­ume of The Bi­cy­cling World and Mo­tor­cy­cle Re­view. That it ex­ists in this state says so much about the founders and the gen­er­a­tions of em­ploy­ees who fol­lowed in their foot­steps. They started sav­ing this ma­te­rial right from the be­gin­ning, and kept it up through tri­umph and ad­ver­sity, re­ces­sions, de­pres­sions, world wars, buy­out, and buy­back.

I guess the Har­ley-david­son cig­a­rettes made sense on some level, but the wine cool­ers seem par­tic­u­larly off-brand.

I love be­ing able to show a bike de­sign from nap­kin sketch through mul­ti­ple con­cept draw­ings to fi­nal de­sign.

2 Some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ti­facts in the Har­ley-david­son col­lec­tion are pa­per doc­u­ments. To­day, nearly ev­ery com­mu­ni­ca­tion—in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs— only ex­ists dig­i­tally. What are the chal­lenges of col­lect­ing and dis­play­ing these dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions?

At the ex­treme edge, we’re in dan­ger of los­ing im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion, or ren­der­ing it un­read­able as for­mats and hard­ware change. But without in­ter­ven­tion, we can also lose im­por­tant de­vel­op­men­tal doc­u­men­ta­tion. I love be­ing able to show a bike de­sign from nap­kin sketch through mul­ti­ple con­cept draw­ings to fi­nal de­sign. When the work hap­pens dig­i­tally, you just end up with the fi­nal prod­uct—un­less a con­scious ef­fort is made to save in­ter­me­di­ate stages. I’m de­ter­mined that we’ll solve this prob­lem so that fu­ture mu­seum vis­i­tors can ap­pre­ci­ate the process as much as the prod­uct.

3 Are there any items in the col­lec­tion that make you won­der what The Mo­tor Com­pany was think­ing at the time?

There are some Mo­tor­clothes from the 1970s that are truly puz­zling. I guess the Har­ley-david­son cig­a­rettes made sense on some level, but the wine cool­ers seem par­tic­u­larly off-brand. The ex­ten­sive wed­ding col­lec­tion that came out in time for the 100th an­niver­sary is an­other per­sonal fa­vorite.

4 Is there any Har­ley-david­son ar­ti­fact lost to his­tory that you wish you had to add to the col­lec­tion?

I re­ally want to know what the in­side of “the Shed” looked like. I was so fas­ci­nated look­ing through the photo al­bums of Wil­lie G’s par­ents; I want to find an en­ve­lope of pho­tos that his grand­par­ents saved, doc­u­ment­ing their sons’ ear­li­est en­deav­ors.

5 What do you feel is the most sig­nif­i­cant item in the mu­seum col­lec­tion, in terms of com­mu­ni­cat­ing the his­tory of the Har­ley-david­son Mo­tor Com­pany?

The ob­vi­ous choice here would be a mo­tor­cy­cle—prob­a­bly “Se­rial No. 1,” one of the hand­ful of bikes made in the first cou­ple of years of The Mo­tor Com­pany. But I’ll go with the 1901 Bill Har­ley bi­cy­cle en­gine draw­ing. It em­bod­ies the foun­da­tional spirit of the com­pany: Bill Har­ley and Arthur David­son’s first ven­ture in mo­tor­ized trans­porta­tion, their en­thu­si­asm for two-wheeled fun, and their Mil­wau­kee-born in­dus­tri­ous­ness. They could have saved their money and bought an off-the-shelf en­gine, but they de­cided to de­sign and build their own. And, to coin a phrase, “the rest is his­tory.”

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