Harley-Davidson's Helmet Project

The Art of The Helmet

In addition to the main gallery and a restaurant/retail wing, the 130,000 square-foot Harley-Davidson Museum complex in downtown Milwaukee also includes a third structure dubbed “The Garage.” This is where Harley-Davidson houses the majority of its archival collection, consisting of hundreds of bikes and associated materials not currently on display inside the museum. The Garage also holds a small gallery space at one end, designed specifically for hosting temporary exhibits.

[Late last fall Harley-Davidson opened The Garage gallery to the public for the first time, hosting “The Helmet Project,” a joint venture between the museum and the nearby Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). Though the exhibit was spearheaded by the Harley-Davidson Museum and incorporated many artifacts from company archives, this was primarily an art and design exhibition showcasing the work of nearly 100 students from MIAD’s fine arts/sculpture, industrial design, interior design and communications programs.

Why the focus on helmets, and not Harley-Davidson motorcycles? “The people who come through our museum are not all motorcycle aficionados,” museum curatorial director Jim Fricke told me. “I was trying to think of a part of our culture that would engage a broad spectrum of people. Helmets have such a deep history beyond motorcycling, going back to some of the earliest artifacts of human civilization. This exhibit encourages visitors to explore art, culture, history and anthropology, all through the context of a motorcycle helmet.”

MIAD’s exhibit design students first created a movable wall system to scale the cavernous, 9,000 square-foot garage space down to a size more appropriate for showcasing the small, stand-alone helmets. The bulk of the remaining space was filled with 43 helmet sculptures intended to “react to and extend the rich history of helmet design.” The resulting creations were remarkably diverse. One helmet resembled a traditional full-face design but was constructed entirely from organic compost; another was formed from dozens of intricately cast brass Band-Aids. Others took the shape of modern designs but were crafted from ancient materials like jute and hemp fibers, wood and even bone.

Special pieces from Harley-Davidson’s archival collection, including a one of Evel Knievel’s patriotic helmets and a huge selection of cotton and leather designs from the teens and twenties, were interspersed among the artwork. Helmets designed for disciplines as diverse as football, NASCAR and even one of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France time trial-winning Giro bicycle helmets provided additional perspective. Two halls were lined with helmet concept drawings from the Industrial Design students, many of which were undeniably innovative. It’s amazing what comes from asking ambitious young designers to reimagine a seemingly stagnant design like a motorcycle helmet from a fresh and original perspective.

Unfortunately, the exhibit only ran for two brief weeks, and has already been removed. Fricke says the next temporary exhibit will be somewhat less temporary, and should remain open for a more conventional, 10-12 week period. And there will be many more temporary exhibits coming to The Garage, as Fricke continues to search for instances where motorcycling collides with the culture at large.

“Our marketing division has been doing a lot of outreach,” Fricke said, “engaging with artists to paint gas tanks, for example, and other collaborative projects. I want to continue to engage artists and other thinkers here at the museum. That’s a neat concept to me.”