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Monroe County History Center explores car culture



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"Life Behind the Wheel" is a new exhibit in the Monroe County History Center. It features a soapbox car, a license plate collection and more. Rebecca Mehling Buy Photos

On the wall is a movie screen with trailers and concessions stand ads running on a loop. Beside the screen a child turns the steering wheel of a makeshift car flanked by retro candy boxes and advertisements.

KayLee Witt said the scene seems to be plucked out of 1950s drive-in theater, yet it sits within the walls of the Monroe County History Museum.

The drive-in theater is a part of the center’s “Life Behind the Wheel” exhibit, which showcases the effect of the car on American culture. The exhibit is open through Jan. 21.

Witt, exhibits manager of the Monroe County History Museum, said the drive-in theater’s representation of the car’s effect is why it is her favorite part of the exhibit.

“The whole drive-in idea has shown how movies and entertainment and recreation have been influenced by the car,” she said.

History museum intern Emily Brown said the drive-in theater was also her favorite part because of its interactive elements.

“The artifacts used are interesting, and the sit-down interactive portion is amazing,” Brown said. “The exhibits department actually built a car in the gallery. It’s so fun and has so many different parts that are attention-grabbing and informative.”

As attendees enter the exhibit, they are greeted by a row of cases. In the tallest case, a mannequin sports a duster coat and riding gloves to demonstrate how cars have affected fashion. The toy cars and toy gas station in the next case display the effect of cars on toys and recreation.

Passing by old driver’s licenses, driving manuals, Indy 500 scarves and a rack of postcards, attendees arrive at posters advertising movies and TV shows wedged in the corner. These posters, Witt said, have their own message.

“Cars influence television and movies as well,” Witt said. “In some shows and movies, the cars were even characters of their own. The car they drove also said a lot about the character, so it became a tool for people to show what a character was like.”

Across the top of the walls, a collection of cut-out phrases float above the throng of automobile artifacts. The phrases include “In the fast lane,” “Running on fumes,” “My way or the highway” and “Shift into high gear” and are examples of car-related idioms now common in the English language.

“They show how cars have transformed our language, which is just the core of how we communicate and our culture,” Witt said.

By showcasing each of these artifacts and visuals, Witt said she hopes to show attendees the reach of the car in everyday life.

“The car isn’t just its own thing,” Witt said. “It’s interwoven into everything else in culture and society, and even politics even though we may not think about it.”

Brown said she too hopes this exhibit will help people realize the effect of the car in every aspect, whether that be sports like NASCAR or experiences like road trips and drive-in movies, of life.

“Car culture is so ingrained in how we live our lives,” Brown said. “This exhibit does a really good job of pointing out how cars changed the world and how they have become so important to all of us.”

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