Milwaukee's new Harley-Davidson Museum opening on Saturday, July 12, isn't just a landmark. It's a destination, a rallying point, a tangible target for pilgrimages.
That was evident from the moment I rolled up to the museum's grounds on my own bike. The venue is unmistakably Harley. If the loud pipes, large strips of orange pavement and giant Harley-Davidson shield atop the 130,000-square-foot museum don't give it away, the rows of motorcycles parked "Sturgis style" do. And the familiar rumbles of the Harley echoed throughout the museum the minute I opened the tall steel doors.
"It's not a whispering museum," director Stacey Schiesl joked with me on an early tour. "That's not in keeping with who we are."
Set on a 20-acre former industrial site just west of Lake Michigan, the grounds -- which are open to the public year-round -- have been designed to accommodate up to 15,000 bikers at a time.
Inside three new industrial-like buildings are several meeting rooms, a restaurant and the Harley-Davidson company archives. The exhibits begin with an introduction to the Harley engine because, well, it all starts with the engine. "[The engine] is always like the jewel and they built the bikes around the jewel," curatorial director Jim Fricke said.
The exhibits also encourage you to look beyond the mechanics. Just to the right of the entrance, for example, is the oldest-known Harley-Davidson in existence -- the 1903 bike dubbed "Serial Number One." Many of the original motorcycles from the factory's early lines -- not replicas, but original bikes -- are displayed in near-perfect condition.
It's the depth of the collection that makes this so fun: There's Elvis' Harley, a 1956 KH; a replica of Easy Rider; bikes from Harley's AMF phase, and scores more motorcycles to show how individual each of these bikes can be.
Most notable, though, is the way the museum weaves in the rider culture itself. Fricke notes that ultimately it's the riders who have made Harley-Davidson what it is -- hence several displays of personalized bikes and a wall devoted to pictures of bikers and their rides.
Indeed, this is a place that does more than celebrate the motorcycle. It celebrates the life that surrounds it.
Troy Melhus • 612-673-4883