- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

The story of America would be no story if not for transportation. America would not be what we know today without planes and trains, subways, ships and millions of cars.

That is the message of “America on the Move,” a new, permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit, which opened in November, shows how the ability to move quickly affected everything from getting fresh produce from farm to market to the growth of the suburbs.

“We really wanted to do an exhibit that was more than about vehicles,” says Janet Davidson, a curator of “America on the Move.” “The exhibit gets you thinking about American history. It is designed to make connections.”

On its most basic level, there are all sorts of things that go in “America on the Move.” Even preschoolers will enjoy the rumble of the mock highway or the restored steam locomotive. That age group also will enjoy the video clips, touch-screen information and other interactive activities.

Visitors of all ages will find something here, however. On a recent morning, a black man stood in the exhibit’s segregated rail station of Salisbury, N.C., circa 1927, and explained to his children why whites and blacks sat separately then. Nearby, two elderly men reminisced about the first cars they drove back in the 1950s.

The exhibit begins in 1876, when the young country counted on covered wagons and the emerging railroad system. It follows the years by showcasing 21 cities in a particular time and how a mode of transportation made an impact. Among the highlights:

• Watsonville, Calif., 1895. The advent of refrigerated rail cars drastically expanded American agriculture as produce and meat from California were able to reach a larger public. It also changed the economy as many Chinese immigrants went to California to work on the railroad or the farms. This display features a Southern Pacific boxcar, the farm wagons and other items from daily life in the late 1800s.

• Washington, D.C., 1900. This is an example of a streetcar city. Scenes of an almost quaint nation’s capital are found here, along with a retired D.C. streetcar. This exhibit explains how important trolley cars were in Washington and other major cities. The streetcar, for instance, enabled Washingtonians to move to then-remote suburbs such as Chevy Chase. It also explains how buses and eventually cars led to the demise of this form of transportation.

• Route 66, 1930s and ‘40s. As Americans’ love affair with the car began, so did an economy linked by highways. New businesses catering to drivers sprang up. Visitors will find a model of one such business, Ring’s Rest, a motor court in Muirkirk, Md.

• Portland, Ore., 1949. This exhibit details the rise of the suburban strip mall in our car-dependent culture.

• Chicago and Park Forest, Ill., 1950s. This exhibit focuses on how commuter trains helped the suburbs grow. One of the most unusual displays is here, too. Visitors can climb aboard an old commuter train where a movie plays on board that makes it seem — through costume, conversation and sound effects — that it is rush hour in 1954.

“We did a lot of research during a particular day in the ‘50s,” Ms. Davidson says. “The technology people modeled what was seen out the windows and people talking as if it were Chicago during that time.”

• Transportation as social change. The good and the bad are detailed here. Transportation’s impact on desegregation in the South is given space here, as are the urban families who lost their homes to the building of the highway system in areas such as Chicago. Problems such as pollution, traffic jams and drunken driving, as well as possible solutions, are addressed here, too.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: The “America on the Move” exhibit is at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Admission: Free

Parking: On-street metered parking is limited. The closest Metro stations are Federal Triangle and Smithsonian on the Orange and Blue lines.

Note: “America on the Move” is a new permanent collection at the museum. It tells the story of American history through innovations in transportation, which changed how communities lived, where people worked and how they traveled. It is appropriate for all ages. The museum features gallery talks every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. These tours focus on a particular feature of the display. Docent-led tours also are available Tuesday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. Group programs are available by reservation.

The exhibition features its own gift shop, with everything from commemorative items to books on America’s drive-in restaurants to toy Volkswagen Beetles.

More information: 202/633-3717 or www.si.edu.

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