by Libby Coyner
A year ago, I was invited to join the National Park Service Route 66 Archives and Research Collaborative. (Yes, it’s a mouthful!) Last week, I had the enormous privilege of joining my colleagues on this project for our annual meeting at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. It was an incredible week of collaboration, strategic planning, and archives fun! Our colleagues at the Autry showed us a fantastic time, and I couldn’t wait to come home and share what I learned.
The Route 66 group is different from other archives projects I’ve worked on because it is oriented around a specific iconic piece of Americana. Route 66 has a powerful pop culture appeal, and thus offers us an opportunity to market our collections to new audiences. It also enables us to get out of our sometimes provenance-based bubble, and to actually curate our collections to tell the stories of the road. (If you didn’t read my post last year, here are some of the stories we were able to tell from Route 66: Route 66 Revisited and the Nefarious Granville Johnson).
One of my very favorite aspects of the Route 66 project is that we do spend some time traveling on the road as part of our conference. This time, my colleague Sean Evans (Cline Library, Northern Arizona University) and I traveled along large swaths of Route 66 to get to L.A., logging a staggering 14-hour day each time we traveled. We spend time shooting photographs (which have been added to archival collections), doing creative outreach and reference with people we meet along the road, and making contacts that have resulted in visits to our institutions, oral histories, and donations to the archives. On our first day, we hit Roy’s Motel in Amboy, California. Roy’s boasted some fantastic mid-century modern architecture, as well as a fabulous sign! We stopped in and spoke with a gentleman tending the front desk (Roy’s still sells gasoline and a few kitschy souvenirs), but didn’t get the impression that there’s a ton of work being done in terms of restoration. This article from 2007 suggest that Roy’s may be revived one of these days – we hope so!
Once we were settled in Los Angeles, we gathered at the Autry Museum to get to work. There were several updates since last year, including a report on a meeting related to the Route 66 World Monument Fund. The project promises to provide funding and attention for preservation of old Route 66, as well as garner support from stakeholders along the road.
We also worked on assessing the design and content of our website, which will be going live within the next few months! I’ll omit some of the details of the strategic planning as it isn’t wildly exciting, but I’ll share the products of our work as they emerge!
On Sunday, we were treated to a very special tour of the Autry’s brand new “Route 66: the Road and the Romance” exhibit by the exhibit curator, Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms. This exhibit brings together some of the finest documents, artifacts, and ephemera related to Route 66. Among the materials on display were Jack Kerouac’s original 120-foot manuscript of On the Road, Woody Guthrie’s guitar, a page from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, what is considered the finest print in existence of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and a copy of a Green Book guide to African American travel. (If you’re not familiar with the Green Book, here is a bit of
background information on some of the road’s civil rights history).
Later on Sunday, we took to the road to talk to some community activists who have become involved in historic preservation along the road, and who are allies that help us share our collections with the world. Amy Inouye is an artist who fell in love with the delightfully kitschy “Chicken Boy” statue years ago when she first moved to Los Angeles. Amy is a designer who dedicated a lot of her own time and money to preserving Chicken Boy, and even moved him to the site of her new studio in Highland Park, where he can continue to watch over Route 66. She integrates historic images of Chicken Boy into her products, including books, postcards, mugs, etc. She works closely with the Highland Park Conservancy to ensure that the history of Route 66 is preserved, including restoration of original neon signs, preservation of buildings, and public art projects including murals and mosaics that present the history of the place to everyone who passes. Amy is a great example of how community members and history-oriented folks can work together to share the history of Route 66 with a new generation!
On Monday, we were treated to another surprise when we got to visit the Disney Imagineering Archives, and meet one of the artists who created Cars Land (based on the Route 66 Disney Pixar film, Cars). Perhaps the piece that attracted the most attention was the original drawing of Disneyland that was taken to New York to pitch the idea to the banks. We also saw the second drawing of Disneyland, which was painted with black light paint to show off how the theme park would look at night!!
On Tuesday, Sean and I hit the road back to Arizona, but made sure to do some sight-seeing along Route 66! We drove through Kingman, Seligman, and even took a tour of Oatman to see some of the scenery that is visible in Disney’s Cars. We even made some new friends!