By Jeannine Patane
Founder, RV Compass
When I planned a road trip from North Carolina to the Midwest this month, it was for the motivating reason to visit the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart. I was excited to experience fresh inspiration and new innovation in the RV industry. Instead what I got was a reality check to the atrophy of an industry’s history.
The morning I visited, some employees with Thor Industries had a catered event outside of the theater for their company meeting. An architect’s image of the museum’s future expansion project sat on an easel opposite the buffet tables. It looked like a giant shell of a warehouse to park more RVs into.
The first wing I entered was the Go RVing Exibition. A museum staff member mentioned it’s the newest wing that’s still in progress and it will represent the industry currently and what it will hold for the future. It sounded exciting. The first visual I got of the future was the caterer for the company event commandeered the bench seating in front of a dark screen for their supplies. Even if the caterer wasn’t there, I wondered if the screen would have been turned on for viewing.
If the wing is supposed to give us a look at the road ahead, it appears to be a detour to a dead end. Other than a few trailers parked in the space to fill it with something, the only thing the room offered was a scale model of a manufacturing plant’s production line with a button audio tour.
For me, that was the best feature of the entire museum. It appeared Go RVing had a great idea and started to act upon it, but then quickly abandoned the project after initiation. The exhibition had been stripped from what the website photos projected. There were no easels displaying the future vision for the space.
The RV Founders Hall was well displayed with a winding road on the floor to take you through history of the RVs. The biggest annoyance for that exhibit would be the poor, direct lighting. The inaccessible, roped off trailers had cheap clamp lights that either blinded visitors directly in the eyes or reflected off glass or mirrors in the trailer, making it difficult to see or photograph the details of interiors.
The trailers that we could walk into were so poorly lit, that flash photography was necessary just to see anything. There is no reason not to have the RVs better illuminated with indirect light. At least move the clamp lights down to the floor and aim upwards.
While I visited the Elkhart area, I heard mention about how the Mennonites greatly contributed to the quality craftsmanship that set a manufacturing standard. Yet, there was no contribution or display throughout the whole building that recognized their craftsmanship with an introductory history about them and their importance to RV manufacturing.
However, the Family Motor Coach Association got a nice spot on the wall for a membership overlook.
The Exhibitor Hall was sparse at best. It’s unfortunate that the companies providing the sponsorship don’t put in a little bit more effort to cater to the purpose of the space. It looked as if most exhibitors just dumped some leftover trade show displays in the room for representation.
Draw-Tite–Hidden Hitch–Reese was the only historical display that looked like it was specifically designed for the space. I wondered why Thor Industries didn’t have their catering presented in that wing instead of taking up the front lobby of the museum and using the Go RVing Exibition as storage. I didn’t pay $10 to walk into a catering closet. Maybe it would have just required a few extra steps on their part.
The museum staff encouraged us to explore the Hall of Fame on the second floor as well as the library. The aspect that intrigued me the most about visiting the museum was the research center. When I stepped into the room I was under the impression I’d be greeted by someone, but there was no one around.
The well-lit room had an outdated university library feel to it, pre-computer cataloging. Periodicals were scattered on some tabletops. Beyond the bookshelf to the right was an empty, cavernous room that looked like it used to be a large library that had all the shelving removed.
I took this road trip for this room, so I forced myself to stay in it and at least nose around. With some persistence, one book was spotted with interest. Winnebago Nation by James Twitchell, enlightened me to more history about RVs than anything in the museum or Hall of Fame offered. As I skimmed through the book sitting in an overstuffed mauve chair, a few visitors turned their heads into the room without crossing the threshold. No one had an interest to step in. One gentleman even commented as he looked into the library, “Boring.”
Of course it’s boring. The room is on the second level all the way in the back corner of the facility. It has been discarded and looks like it hasn’t had any importance for about 20 years.
It’s funny to see a time capsule trunk at the entrance of the RV Founders Hall downstairs, when all you’d need to do to step back in time is to visit the entire second floor of the museum. There is so much potential to turn the second-story into an interactive and educational experience, but the founding visions have been lost and abandoned by a generational gap.
Which brings me to the Hall of Fame photos. This is the best display of a contradicting message of what the RV industry should represent. It clearly reflects the old white males. Each photo looks like it came out of a fraternal yearbook and the only reason you look at the photos is to visually challenge yourself to find any face that doesn’t seem to fit in. It’s like playing a game of where’s Waldo.
I say this contradicts the RV industry because it’s these very men (and a few women) who hang on the wall for their passion and dedication to an industry that promotes and markets the vehicle of escapism from the rat race of rules, bylaws and following others. Fraternal organization is the farthest thing from a pioneering spirit.
As a rally coordinator, I am aware of the committees, clubs and the nature of inclusive belonging that the RV culture holds. The repetitive Hall of Fame photos are paradoxical; such a liberating lifestyle encompasses such political doors. It’s the upstairs that should be dimly lit with clamp lights like a secret society passage, not blatantly illuminated by the industry’s stifling truth.
A suggestion to make all those fraternal men instantly more unique for their accomplishments is to add an inset photo of them on a corner of their portrait. Visitors want to get some sense of why these faces should be viewed as important individuals. Make us lean in to see an image of them in their element.
It could be them in the factory working with their staff, relaxing around the campfire with their family, digging the hole for the campground they operated, or anything to show us why they are on that wall in the first place. The Hall of Fame photos need life to them like the great exhibit on the first floor of the individuals that live in manufactured homes.
Even the women’s second floor bathroom had an awful funeral-like feeling to it. An overly perfumed pit stop made me feel like I just walked into someone’s wake. In the corner of the room, a coffin-colored heavy end table displayed a fake floral arrangement and the overpowering deodorizer made me wonder what scent of unpleasantness was trying to be covered up.
Upon escaping the second floor, the bottom of the staircase opened into the gift shop. At this point, I wasn’t inspired to pay for overpriced books or leftover swag from trade shows. It was an odd and miscellaneous mix of merchandise. I looked back over to where the buffet tables were earlier in the day for Thor Industries.
The caterer had cleaned up from the event, but the picture of the future expansion project came back into sight. They don’t get it. It’s a continual make-more-and-make-it-bigger attitude instead of taking the existing building and revamping it into something truly inspirational. The museum is unfortunately morphing into a mausoleum.
When I arrived at the museum, I was wide-eyed and eager to find inspiration in an industry that I am working to build a career in. When I exited the building, all I could do was let out a deep sigh and be thankful that my next inhale was outside, taking in the fresh air. My steps were quickly away from the depressing experience and my eyes were forward on an individual, pioneering road ahead.
Jeannine Patane is the founder of RV Compass, a company that helps plan and organize RV rallies. She also serves as the coordinator of Eggshells in The Outer Banks, a rally for tear-drop RV owners that takes place in North Carolina in October. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.