The History Business

Corporate plugs could be a "buy-product" of the Crawford museum's new home.

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In the movies, whenever Angelina Jolie drinks a bit too visibly from a can of Pepsi or a FedEx truck lingers in the background, it's because those companies paid to have their names seen. Call it "product placement," which stems from the Iroquois phrase "We bought our way into the damn movie."

But museums would never trade in such crass terminology. "What we're really talking about is corporate partnerships," says Tami Brown of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Colleague Liz Horrigan prefers "integrated marketing."

But euphemisms aside, Cleveland's Frederick C. Crawford Museum of Transportation and Industry may be the nation's first historical center to include product placement. Come 2004, when the museum hopes to open the doors to its new $75 million lakefront home, patrons might witness a 1940s Coke machine at the gas station exhibit or a 1958 Mercury wagon, all courtesy of the companies that paid to have them seen.

It's not exactly a new trend. Science centers, Horrigan notes, have long employed product placement. "If they want to do a telephone exhibit, they'll call AT&T. AT&T might already have an exhibit they can just plunk in."

But science centers tend toward interaction and a children's emphasis that make them seem like a McDonald's Playland with an educational slant. In the tweed-jacket realm of history, where purity of scholarship is almighty, such overt commercialism is usually construed as heresy.

Word is, the museum turned to product placement due to slow fund-raising. Not so, says Horrigan. The Western Reserve Historical Society, under which the Freddy C. is slated to rise, has already raised $30 million toward construction. Besides, revenue from product placement will go only to operational costs. And the notion isn't as tacky as it seems.

There may be docents wearing Ford jackets, for example. There may also be "more of a spin telling the Ford story than there otherwise might be," says Horrigan. But Ford's money won't preclude mention of Chevy; nor will it give Ford veto power over the history being told. "It's not like they get to say to us, 'You don't get to say that, because I don't want anyone to know that.'"

And all exhibits will adhere strictly to historical accuracy. It's just that a big check might make one view of history more compelling than another.

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