When Museums Get it Wrong, Collectors Can Make it Right

When Museums Get it Wrong, Collectors Can Make it Right

The flags on the front bumper of the Sunshine Special before and after with a replica of the license plate featured on the original 1939 FDR-era presidential limousine.
Images courtesy: The Henry Ford

There are times when a museum display doesn’t have the correct information, so it is up to collectors to help set the historical record straight.

Charlie Edwards, age 10, noticed a museum sign while attending the London Natural History Museum’s “Dino Snores for Kids” event at the time. The sign identified a dinosaur as an Oviraptor, except he knew the image as a Protoceratops, two entirely different dinosaurs. The staff was notified by the parents of Charlie’s discovery and the sign was changed.

Joey Warchal, age 13, was visiting Al Capone’s jail cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2016 when he noticed something rather irregular. The jail cell was supposed to be a recreation of the time period when Capone was imprisoned there from 1929 to 1930. Joey, a collector of vintage radios, noticed that the staff had a Philco A-361 large cabinet radio on display. This radio wasn’t manufactured until 1942, a full twelve years after Capone’s incarceration. The staff gave Joey $400 to find a proper replacement to update the display.

Wp museum radios
The Majestic Model 90-B console radio of 1929 (left) is probably similar to what was in Al Capone’s jail cell at Eastern State Penitentiary from 1929 to 1930 instead of the Philco A-361 from 1942 (right) that was on display as caught by 13-year-old vintage radio collector Joey Warchal.

These are just two of the stories from an internet article titled 5 Times When Kids Corrected Museums on mentalfloss.com from 2017. Other teens corrected a map display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an equation on display at the Museum of Science in Boston, and helped set the record straight on the Precambrian period of earth’s history for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Great stories of collectors sharing their knowledge to correct the historical record for all of us.

The article reminded me that I was also able to help correct the historical display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, back in 2017. The “Sunshine Special,” the limousine of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on display since it was donated in the 1950s, was flying the wrong presidential flag. As a vexillologist (flags and seals), I just felt that I had to help set the record straight.

Actually, the display was brought to my attention by a friend who was a White House senior correspondent and a longtime car buff. While standing next to “The Beast,” the presidential armored limousine of then-President Barack Obama in 2016, Brody Levesque noticed something odd. When he looked up the history of the presidential limousine, he realized that the presidential flag on the Sunshine Special didn’t seem to correspond to the Roosevelt era. He called me to verify if the flag was indeed incorrect. It was.

According to the display, the armored limousine was specifically referencing its time with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s service as president from 1933 to 1945. The flags on the front bumper featured the 48-star US flag (which was correct), but it also had the flag of the president with 50 stars that was adopted in 1960 (which was quite incorrect). “How is it possible,” Levesque asked, “that a major historical display would miss such a noticeable detail?”

For the display to be relevant to the Roosevelt era, the flag of the president would have to be changed to a military standard for the office of commander-in-chief that was adopted by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. This flag would still have a field of navy blue, but with a white, five-pointed star in each corner with a white, black-outlined presidential eagle facing toward the arrows in the center (the current presidential flag design wouldn’t become official until October 1945). Oh, and its license plate was missing.

Over the next year, several donations transported the Sunshine Special back to the time of FDR. Help came from a generous grant from the Chesapeake Bay Flag Association (CBFA); an authentic Mare Island 48-star US flag donation from CBFA member Dale Grimes; the National Capital Flag Company in Alexandria, VA, who handcrafted an exact replica of the original car flag from photos from the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY; the curators of The Henry Ford Museum; and a GoFundMe campaign of a dozen supporters.

Now, both flags are of the proper era, proper proportions, and of the proper material. We even added license plates and reproductions of the 1942-1943 plate numbered “2094” to complete the final transformation.

By the way, the oft-told story that the “Sunshine Special” or any FDR presidential limousine was somehow a vehicle originally owned by Chicago mobster Al Capone isn’t even close to being true. The official website of The Henry Ford Museum tells the story of the car best:

“…The 1939 Lincoln Model K most often associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first parade car specifically modified for presidential use. Coachbuilder Brunn & Company focused more on utility than luxury, deleting armrests for maximum seating capacity and adding wide running boards for Secret Service agents. The car was not armored until Pearl Harbor, when bullet-resistant tires, glass, and armor plating were installed.”

After the display was corrected, Brody Levesque wrote The Sunshine Special, FDR’s 1939 Lincoln K-Series Presidential Limousine, the first time a complete history of the car has been available. Contact The Henry Ford for a downloadable version. 

With our expertise as collectors, there will be a time when even a seemingly unimportant detail will be overlooked by professional staff, and it is up to each collector to be prepared to fill in these historical gaps. That’s how collectors can contribute to the historical record. Don’t be afraid to speak up if a display needs correcting.

“See Something, Say Something” should be the watchword of all collectors, no matter how old you are. After all, as far as history is concerned, even the small things matter.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia, and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals, and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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