Innovation & Design

The Harley Museum Goes the Whole Hog


The Milwaukee motorcycle mecca will showcase Harley-Davidson's history, creating a shrine for bikers

Cue Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild. On July 12, famed American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (HOG) will kick-start its latest creation, throwing open the doors to a $75 million brand museum on Milwaukee's South Side.

The Harley-Davidson Museum was designed and curated by New York's Pentagram and is intended as a mecca for motorcyclists, housing artifacts such as the hogs owned by Elvis Presley and daredevil Evil Knievel as well as the company's earliest and rarest models. Harley-Davidson, which has seen sales cool since a 2006 peak of nearly 350,000 bikes, hopes the shrine-like site will help maintain and develop the brand's already devoted following and attract more than 300,000 visitors annually. "It's simple. We hope to build and strengthen the bond with our riders," says Stacey Schiesl, the museum's director, of the institution's mission.

Hog Heritage

Like the bikes it commemorates, the 130,000-square-foot site's architecture is a gnarl of steel and metal bolts, all swathed in the company's classic black and orange colors. Imposing, exposed steel structures mesh with concrete flooring and glazed brick walls create a factory-like environment that reflects Harley-Davidson's industrial heritage. "We didn't want to 'over-promote,'" says architect Jim Biber of the site design. "Instead, we wanted it to blend into the surroundings." To that end, Harley-Davidson's bar-and-shield logo is employed sparingly, most dramatically atop an 80-foot tall steel structure dubbed "The Tower."

Rather than create one massive building, Biber, a Harley rider himself since his college days, built a series of three buildings around a 60-foot-wide intersection, connected by glass bridges. The format is intended to mimic the classic American Main Street, allowing biker pilgrims to park "Sturgis style" (aligning multiple bikes closely), kick back, and hang out. (Set on a 20-acre former industrial site, the museum can accommodate 15,000 bikers at a time.) The parking lot, says Biber, becomes a sort of user-generated preamble to the museum, a place where riders can check out one another's equipment as they commonly do in meet-ups across the country.

Inside, exhibits examine the company's varied history, charting Harley-Davidson's financial and technological developments as well as telling the stories of some of its most extravagant devotees. One gallery pays homage to board track racing, a death-defying sport popular in the 1920s that was ultimately outlawed. In another hall, a steeply slanted slab of concrete with gravity-defying bikes affixed commemorates "hill climbers", riders who raced up nearly vertical hills. A central gallery features a chronological collection of motorcycles spanning the company's 105-year history. "A lot of our design ideas were only possible because we created the architecture, too," says exhibition designer and Pentagram partner Abbott Miller, who worked closely with Biber on the project. Miller notes that such large interior flourishes are supported by the buildings' foundations and would not have been possible otherwise.

Harley's Earnings Forecast

The museum is opening at a time Harley-Davidson has managed to mostly buck the trend of American manufacturing, remaining staunchly Made in America, even as other companies' U.S. jobs have been siphoned off to other parts of the world. Harley has felt the pinch, however; in April, executives forecast earnings would slow later this year, prompting cuts in production and the dismissal of 10% of its workforce.

Still, the project's principals say the museum was created as a testament to the manufacturer's devoted customer following rather than Harley's financial situation in any given period. "There's almost no commercial motivation here," insists Miller. "It's really not a marketing-driven project so much as a place to house what had already become a free-standing museum collection." Exhibits will include hundreds of motorcycles from the company's archives as well as mountains of historical advertisements, memorabilia, and other biker arcana.

Ultimately, the museum's success may be judged by how patrons use the space, says Harley-Davidson's Schiesl. Unlike similar projects by companies such as BMW (BMW) and Mercedes-Benz (DIA), which are essentially expanded showrooms, this museum is intended to be an interactive rallying point for aficionados. The museum already has hosted a company employee's wedding, and such tales and gatherings form an important part of the Harley-Davidson legacy. "It's not just about what's inside," says Schiesl. "We like to throw a lot of parties, too."

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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