It’s hard for me to believe that my time at the Chrysler Museum is almost over. I have learned a lot about how museums function, Chrysler’s history, and cars in general. I was bound to learn some of the things I did simply by spending time at the museum, but the majority of what I learned came from doing research. “Writing is rewriting,” is a quote (or a similar variation of the quote) I have heard from more than one writing and rhetoric professor at Oakland; I agree with that statement, but after this internship I believe that writing is also research.
As a college senior, I have obviously conducted research before, but I have never had to start from scratch on an assignment. For every writing assignment I have at Oakland, I have had at least a small amount of information on the topic I would be writing about. This wasn’t the case at the museum. I had to research everything from Chrysler’s financial situation in the 1970s to the average amount of time it took the Big Three to take a car from concept to production in the early 1990s. I was often times surprised how much research I had to do before conducting an oral history interview.
I am almost hesitant to call an oral history an interview. An oral history is an interview in the fact that a person is asking another person questions, but (at least in my opinion) the term interview has the connotation that the interviewer has a specific agenda and is trying to get information from the interviewee. I have been approaching this oral history project as trying to get a story and putting it into context. I believe this approach serves the project better than bringing a list of questions to the “interview” and asking them in order. Maybe I’m overly romanticizing the project, but I like to think that letting people tell their own story with minimal prompting from me will produce better results than having a clear agenda and trying to lead the interviewee in a direction.
My biggest concern with the project is that it may come off as Chrysler propaganda. I have worked hard to be objective and frame opinion questions as the interviewee’s opinion and not fact because the interviewees are passionate about the cars they worked on and proud of their accomplishments. In one oral history I did say that the Dodge Viper is a popular car; popular is a relative term and it really can’t be backed up, but I believe a statement like that is similar to common knowledge in an academic essay. I can’t prove that the Viper is popular, but I feel comfortable making that claim based on reviews I have read and people I have talked to. I hope that I have demonstrated creditability in my oral histories so they come off as informative and hopefully entertaining and not like a Chrysler commercial.
It’s not quite over yet, but my internship has been a positive experience and I have learned a lot. This particular oral history project won’t produce many written texts, but I feel like it has helped me grow as a writer and a researcher.
My time at the Chrysler Museum feels like it’s flying by and it’s hard to believe that I only have a little over a month left there. Depending on my schedule after graduation I might continue “working” there until the end of the year.
I have completed three oral history interviews and three more are scheduled this month. Next Thursday I will be attending an event for Chrysler designers and engineers to promote the Chrysler Heritage Oral History Project so hopefully we can generate enough interest in the project that it can go forward after I complete my internship. I am enjoying my time at the museum and I have learned a lot doing research for the interviews. I wouldn’t consider myself a gear-head, but I am more interested in cars than I was when I began the internship in late August.
I am enjoying working on the heritage project so much that at times during interviews I have to remind myself to take a step back and let the interviewee tell his story and not try to influence it in any way. During the course of some of the interviews I have conducted, I’ll find myself wanting the subject to answer a question a certain way either because it will be an interesting answer or it would provide a good follow-up question. Thankfully, I have been able to stop myself every time. I don’t want to damage my ethos as an interviewer and I also don’t want this project to come off as a Chrysler propaganda piece. I have been able to keep my ethos intact which will make for a better project overall, even at the expense of a good quote or two.
The next step of the project is to promote the oral histories we have completed. Although we still haven’t decided on how they will ultimately be presented we are starting to promote them. In the coming weeks I will be writing short articles about the interviews that may be published in Forward, the museum’s quarterly publication. It will be a challenge to write about the interviews in a way that generates interest, but at the same time doesn’t give away any of the “good stuff.” I’m excited for the opportunity to write for a genre I don’t have experience with because it can only help me grow as a writer.
Things have been moving a little slow at the Chrysler Museum. There is a lot of interest in the Chrysler Heritage Oral History Project, but it has been difficult to schedule times with the interested parties. Many of the Chrysler retirees who have expressed interest in the project don’t live in Michigan anymore and factors such as different time zones and my school schedule have contributed to a slowdown in the project. We do have an interviews scheduled for October 17th and November 7th and we are waiting to hear back from three more retirees so the project isn’t in any kind of danger, we’re just in a hurry up and wait phase which after spending four years in the military is something I am used to.
Despite not having much in terms of a tangible product so far, I have stayed busy at the museum. I have been conducting a lot of research about specific aspects of Chrysler such as Mopar and individual cars. I have learned a lot about the Dodge Viper. The only thing I used to know about the Viper was that I couldn’t afford one, but now I know about the car itself and its backstory. I have been tasked with writing interview questions for Roy Sjoberg who was the executive engineer for the first Viper. The museum is going to create a Viper Café, an exhibit about the Viper where visitors can also have a snack. The team behind the Viper Café wants to conduct a video interview with Mr. Sjoberg for the exhibit and since we have been working on interviews for the Heritage Project the museum administration thought we could double up and use the interview for the Viper Café and Heritage Project.
I wouldn’t be the person asking Mr. Sjoberg the questions; the museum is in the process of negotiating with a videographer, so my interview questions would be part of a collaboration. Other than a few group projects in school, I haven’t done much collaboration, but it is an important part of the writing process so I am looking forward to it. I have another collaboration opportunity in the works. The editor of the Chrysler Museum’s magazine approached me and asked me to write up a summary of the first interview I conducted and pull some quotes from it for a blurb in the magazine. She said as we gather more oral histories there may be an opportunity for a large article in a future publication. Nothing is set in stone, but I think I would enjoy collaborating on a magazine article. Writing for genres I’m not familiar with can only help me to improve as a writer.
As a side project for the museum, I may attempt to do some technical writing. This Monday morning at 6:00 technicians will be coming into the museum and putting new cars onto the car tower. The same group of people have been responsible for it for the museum’s entire 11 year existence and as a result, the process hasn’t been documented thoroughly. While the technicians move the cars, the museum’s collections manager and I will be taking pictures, notes, and video of the process. Sometime in the coming weeks I will work on documenting the process in writing. It’s intimidating because I am not mechanically inclined, but that’s what technical writing is all about. Hopefully I can sound like an authority on the subject.
I have paid special attention to audience in the first weeks of my internship at the Chrysler Museum. I am working on the Chrysler Heritage Project, an oral history project where Chrysler retirees share their stories. The bulk of the writing I have done so far has been writing interview questions. It’s obviously important to consider the audience for any piece of writing, but the audience for a car museum can be a challenge.
A case can be made that because the final product will be used at the Chrysler Museum (at the present time we aren’t exactly sure how the oral histories will be “displayed”) the audience will be car enthusiasts who are extremely knowledgeable. That audience would want to know some of the technical aspects about the cars in question such as wheelbase, differential gear ratio, and turning radius. In my talks with the museum’s collections manager, we decided that the Chrysler Heritage Project would be more effective if it catered to a general audience. We decided it would be best not to alienate anyone by making the interviews with engineers and designers too technical. I think our decision to appeal to a general audience is the correct choice because the museum attracts a diverse group of people. In the short amount of time I have been an intern there, I have seen people from almost every age group and many people from foreign countries.
I have only conducted one interview so far. I interviewed Bob Davis, the chief program manager of the Maserati Program. He was responsible for the Chrysler TC by Maserati, a joint venture by Chrysler and Maserati that had a three year production run in the late 80s and early 90s. Obviously Mr. Davis is knowledgeable about cars and especially the TC so I had to let him know that the interview would be for a general audience and not a group of diehard car enthusiasts or engineers. I also had to tell him to provide some context if he mentioned any names in the interview the average person may not be familiar with. Enough people have heard the name Lee Iacocca to not need a detailed explanation, but far fewer Americans have heard of Alejandro de Tomaso, the owner of Maserati at the time. I got the feeling that Mr. Davis has told his story to a general audience before and the interview went well.
Some ethical concerns came up as I was researching the interview. In almost all of the articles I found about the TC it was considered a flop due to low sales. I didn’t want to risk insulting Mr. Davis by bringing it up because he is obviously proud of his team’s accomplishments, but if the interview only focused on the positives it may come off as biased which would be bad for any museum. I decided to focus my interview on how the partnership between Chrysler and Maserati came about, what Chrysler gained from it, and any important lessons Chrysler learned from the project. I also asked Mr. Davis some questions about the TC as a TC owner, by framing it as an opinion question, it let listeners know that he was speaking as a car owner and his opinion wasn’t being presented as a fact in a museum exhibit.
The interview went well and Mr. Davis even mentioned the disappointing sales numbers without me bringing up the subject. He said that two seat cars (with the exception of the Corvette) don’t generally sell well in America. Despite the fact that some people consider the car a flop, it still has a following today. There is a national TC owners club and they have yearly meetings and events. I was happy that I was able to conduct an interview for a general audience that was unbiased (or as unbiased as possible, this is a Chrysler project after all) and I’m excited for the interviews we have lined up for next month.
I began my internship at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum on September 1st, 2011. My primary responsibility will be working on the Chrysler Heritage Project, an oral history project that allows Chrysler retirees to share their stories.
The project is still new so I am not sure of all of my responsibilities yet, but at the moment I know I will be writing interview questions, conducting interviews, and working with the museum staff on how to present the final product.