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Everyone’s wild about Harley

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Story and photographs

by Melinda Tichelaar

The first thing you need to know about the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee is that it’s not really a motorcycle museum.

It’s really an art museum that explores industrial design by giving visitors a step-by-step trip through the evolution of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The Harley-Davidson Museum comprises three buildings on a 20-acre campus along a canal just south of downtown Milwaukee. The exterior is dramatic in its industrial design, made from steel with long bold lines and giant rivets. As you walk up, you hear rock music pumping out of hidden speakers.

And as you walk inside, the first thing you see is dozens of motorcycles, lined up and heading for the door. To your right, you’ll find a chronological tour through the first five decades of the company, starting with a motorcycle so precious, it’s stored under glass.

That motorcycle — called “Serial Number One” — is the oldest Harley in existence, circa 1903. Around the case, there’s a 10-by-14 glowing line to represent the backyard shed where the company got its start. This first gallery offers a quick round-up of the company’s founders and rocketing growth (it went from that shed in Milwaukee to hundreds of employees in 67 countries within 17 years), but the main attraction here is the art of the motorcycle.

And the art of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is presented in such a clear, dynamic, and fresh way, and supplemented with such wonderful artifacts (posters, company documents, photos, clothing, and vintage video), that even people who’ve never ridden a Harley will enjoy themselves.

“You can look at American history through motorcycles, you can see the evolution of graphic design through motorcycles, you can see the history of pop culture through motorcycles,” curator Kristen Jones said. “People don’t expect to learn so much.”

In the other galleries on the eastern side of the main floor, visitors will find exhibits connecting Harley-Davidson to World War II, displays of bikes designed for businesses (ice cream delivery bikes, law enforcement bikes, and even a photo of an ambulance motorcycle with a casket-like sidecar), and some ads from 1933 featuring scantily clad women enjoying men, motorcycles and a Lake Michigan picnic lunch.

There’s also a 1936 EL “Knucklehead,” the first Harley to exhibit the design features that are now synonymous with the company: a low seat, skirted fender, a teardrop-shaped gas tank, and an integrated “cat’s eye” dash.

On the western side of the museum, there’s a gallery devoted to racing and motorcycle clubs, along with an interactive engine room. The engines are presented and lit like precious paintings. One of the most compelling things in the engine room is a V-shaped Harley engine mock-up; visitors can spin a wheel and see how the pistons on the engine create the signature galloping noise of a Harley. (No, it’s not the exhaust pipes.)

Downstairs, there’s another striking line of motorcycles dating from the 1950s all the way to the company’s centennial in 2003. Visitors will also find Elvis Presley’s KH (along with the agreement he signed on Jan. 14, 1956, to make payments of $50.15), a wall full of tricked out kidney belts and other accessories, and a 13-foot-long “King Kong” made from two motorcycles welded together. There’s a room devoted to the engineering behind a Harley (with a full-size clay model), but fans who want to learn more about the manufacturing side should take one of the free factory tours available at the Menomonee Falls plant.

The last stop inside the museum is something that most visitors find irresistible: the opportunity to actually sit on a Harley. Ten bikes from different eras are lined up and strapped to the floor. Senior citizens, little girls and serious men in business suits clamber on top of the bikes and pose for pictures. It’s like a playground for grown-ups.

“There’s an appeal for people beyond the riders who love the brand so much they have ‘Harley-Davidson’ tattooed on their skin,” said Museum Operations Director Eric McGraw.

The typical visit takes two hours, but those who want to make a day of it can take a break at Harley-Davidson’s two on-site restaurants. There’s also a park along the canal just outside the main door that would be a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

The museum also hosts corporate events, birthday parties and even weddings. Visitors who want a little something extra can opt for a behind-the-scenes tour that takes them into a bike storage room and the archives.

Curator Kristen Jones talks about the motorcycles and memorabilia as if she’s in the Louvre. The bikes really are art, and the crowd at the museum is just as diverse as any you’ll find at a big-city art museum — businesspeople in suits and ties, grandparents with little kids, suburban moms in sweatpants. Jones said a recent tour group from the “Bead and Button” Convention had a great time.

“Once a guy who’s riding his Harley around the world showed up. He’d already gone from Paris to Russia,” she said. “You never know who you’re going to meet here.”