The Petersen Automotive Museum, A Docent's Perspective (August 2018)
The Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Chris Ratliff, Docent, The Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, CA
If you search around for a good definition of "museum," whatever you find will probably not come close to describing what you viscerally and intellectually experience every time you step into the museum that is your second home. We museum-philes understand that within the brick and steel, glass and mortar structure, whether bland or grand, are literally the wonders of the genre on display. That is, any and every exhibit tells many facets of a rich narrative of history, zeitgeist, aspiration, genius, foolishness, success, failure, excess, understatement, etc. If you don't sense those friendly spirits communing with you when you roam the floors, then you're not in a museum, you're in a curio shop. A museum may be dedicated to art, technology, natural history, or whatever, but the narrative on display is always at its core the same, just from a different perspective: humanity. In that regard, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is no different than the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Petersen is one of, if not the, finest automobile museum in the world. As a vault docent, I have the privilege of escorting groups, often entire families, through our underground facility ("The Vault") that stores hundreds of iconic cars, collected from all over the world and dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.
Photos: Objects in the Museum
As a career engineer, I may be predisposed to speak in techno-jargon, but I appreciate that numbers can tell only a small part of a car's role in impacting mankind. The tales that capture our guests' wonderment are about what compelled an automobile's creation, what the challenges were, what the appeal was, how it influenced or even changed society, how it was imitated or why it was scorned, why we remember it, what you, the guest, feel as you stand intimately close, and so much more. My only regret is shared by virtually every Petersen visitor: a 75-minute tour is so little time to tell the fascinating stories of humanity through our cars.