Leader of the pack

The Harley-Davidson is a revered American icon, so it made sense to dedicate a museum to its history. Mike Exon checks out the plans

Stacey Schiesl holds the keys to a legacy formidable enough to leave the toughest nuts in the design world drooling into their beards. She is the brains behind the Harley-Davidson Museum, a new grown up breed of visitor experience opening in Milwaukee, US, this summer. It is being designed by Pentagram Design and Schiesl is its director.

From this July, Harley riders and bike enthusiasts will begin arriving at a living Harley-Davidson ‘neighbourhood’ built around 20m wide streets, 25m steel towers and huge brick walls. This factory scape forms its own fully functioning district within the fabric of the city, with the museum centre stage. It is a paean to the company’s roots and to famous US biker rallies like Sturgis and Daytona Beach.

H-D appointed Pentagram Design as lead design architect for the museum back in 2003. New York partner and architect Jim Biber has been spearheading the consultancy’s involvement, supported by fellow Pentagram partners Abbott Miller on exhibition interiors and Michael Bierut on graphics.

‘We have a highly collaborative relationship with Pentagram,’ says Schiesl. ‘The big question for all of us has been how do you bring the Harley-Davidson brand experience to life?’

As well as trying to capture the emotive experience of Harley-Davidson physically, through the bricks and steelwork of the buildings, Biber and the team have created an industrial and earthy design scheme that integrates the bar and shield identity, and Harley name, into the structures themselves.

‘We hired a stonemason, a Harley rider, to build the walls. They are 20m tall and made from 21 000 hand-cut bricks. Four and a half thousand of them form the brand insignia in black lettering. It’s not just a museum, it’s a work of art,’ says Schiesl.

The main museum is one of three buildings on site, which come together to form a crossroads on Canal Street. Adjacent is an events space annexe and a retail store selling branded and badged H-D merchandise.

Inside the museum, Miller and his team have been working with the exhibits. On display to visitors will be more than 450 vehicles, as well as rare archive footage and photographs from legendary events like the board track races of old. Back in the 1920s Harley riders got together to race around circuits knocked up from tiered wooden planks. Racing at 120mph with no brakes and leaking oil proved so challenging it was banned in the 1930s, but the memory is rekindled through the installations inside.

Walking through the exhibition, you learn some of the history of the company and some of its more noteworthy achievements selected from the 8000 artefacts and 150 000 historical photographs from the H-D archive. The original Harley bike, Serial Number One, and the wooden shed it was built in, both feature, but it’s not all just about bikes.

‘We won’t only have bikes on display because over the years Harley-Davidson has designed all sorts of vehicles, things like snowmobiles and golf carts too,’ says Schiesl. ‘We’re moving the entire company archive to the museum as well, though notall of it will be on show at any one time.’

Among the main exhibits will be the much-loved, custom bike affectionately known as King Kong. Designed by Harley enthusiast Felix Predko, the machine is 4m long and is coolly powered by a pair of in-line engines, giving way to four fishtail straight exhaust pipes at the rear. A miniature King Kong toy is chained above the headlamp.

Aside from apocryphal tales, the exhibition will consider the extraordinary influence that the machines have had on mainstream culture over the years. The show will include the 1956 Model KH motorcycle owned by Elvis Presley and a replica model of the Captain America chopper ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the movie Easy Rider. Fonda was even brought in to advise on the design of the new bike for the museum.

But what separates this place from the gloss and kitsch of the celebrity-studded world is its homespun authenticity. The museum is a place for the die-hard enthusiast, where design is valued for its individual character, uniqueness and personality, and the beard is king.

Harley-Davidson Museum

• Museum space will feature a range of bikes and vehicles, designs of Harley-Davidson marketing collateral, bike apparel and archive footage
• It will use photography, film and a variety of media to tell the story of the company, the brand and the riders behind it
• As well as a museum, the drive-by Harley ‘neighbourhood’ will include a retail space, 150-seat restaurant, a Grab and Go café, an event space for 1200, and party space for 15 000
• Opens in July, in Milwaukee, US

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