Harley-Davidson Museum Curatorial Interview With Jim Fricke

We talk Harley-Davidson history with its curatorial director, Jim Fricke, inside the H-D museum

Jim Fricke
I guess the Harley-Davidson cigarettes made sense on some level, but the wine coolers seem particularly off-brand.Kent Barton

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”