Touring Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum

Milwaukee is home to the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Milwaukee is home to the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

The crowd in the museum is quiet. Reverent, actually. A grizzled, pony-tailed man in leathers, chains hanging from his pockets, slowly walks up and down the rows of gleaming bikes. Pausing before one that catches his eye, he fishes a tiny camera out of his pocket, frames his shot just so, and snaps a photo. A young couple is similarly transfixed, walking arm-in-arm and peering closely at each display, while a group of men from Singapore, eyes shining, is huddled around an exhibit I can’t quite see.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You’re a Hog fanatic.
  • You’re a rider.
  • Good for motorcycle enthusiasts, riders, history fans.

Full disclosure: I’m not a rider. Fuller disclosure: I don’t really like motorcycles. I think they’re dangerous and scary and loud. Or at least I used to. Actually, I’m not quite sure what I think anymore, after my tour through the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Celebrating an American Icon

Statue outside the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Statue outside the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

The Harley-Davidson Museum opened in downtown Milwaukee in 2008. Milwaukee, of course, is the birthplace of Harley-Davidson, which got its start in a tiny shed there in 1903. Founders William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson produced the world’s first motorized bicycle, which quickly became a hit. Competitors soon materialized, and motorcycles roared into the mainstream.

But two World Wars and a Depression battered businesses around the globe, and by the middle of the 20th century, Harley-Davidson (H-D) was the sole American motorcycle manufacturer left sputtering. After a period of declining quality and tough competition from Japan in the latter half of the century, the battered company zoomed back to life with top-quality, highly-desired products. Harley became more than a brand of motorcycle, it became a lifestyle: proof that the American dream is still alive. With the dawn of the 21st century, it was time to secure H-D’s legacy and provide a mecca for its millions of fans scattered worldwide. It was time to create a museum.

Touring the Museum

Serial Number One in the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Serial Number One in the Harley-Davidson Museum. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Before you head over to Milwaukee, first decide if you simply want to tour the museum, or if you’d also like a factory tour of the area’s powertrain operations facility. Tickets are sold for one or both attractions. (If you’re really into bikes, the factory tour is interesting. If you’re more into history and Americana, skip the factory.)

The museum contains three floors of diverse exhibits. Not surprisingly, hundreds of motorcycles are on display, including the famous Serial Number One, the oldest-known Harley in existence. The company’s impressive collection of bikes comes thanks to its founders, who had the foresight to pick one bike off the assembly line every year.

Besides bikes, the museum showcases roughly 80 years’ worth of intricately decorated Harley fuel tanks, scribbled notes from stockholder meetings and exhibits about the company’s involvement in World War II. A small kids’ area sports pint-size biker clothes tots can try on, while the Experience Gallery is filled with vintage and new-model bikes that bigger kids (aka adults) can climb on.

Wandering through the various displays gives me a quick recap of 20th-century American history from a rider’s and business’ perspective. And seeing how H-D powered through rough times in the ’60s, and persevered, makes me proud to be a Wisconsinite. But I’m most energized to be experiencing the museum alongside die-hard motorcycle and Harley fans, whose enthusiasm perusing the exhibits and scoping out the goods in the extensive gift shop is catching.

As I make my way toward the gift shop door, I spy the group of men from Singapore. Cradling a tiny pink outfit, one of the men proudly tells the clerk he named his baby girl Harley. A big smile spreads across my face, and it stays there as I head for home.

Practicalities

  • Plan to spend 1-4 hours at the museum, depending on your level of interest.
  • The Harley-Davidson Museum also contains a restaurant, Motor, plus Café Racer.
  • When you’re in town, make sure to head over to the House of Harley-Davidson, one of the largest H-D dealers in the world. The 50,000-square-foot store carries bikes from all of the Harley model families, plus a staggering selection of merchandise, including clothing, accessories and H-D bling.
  • Coming in from afar? Book a room at The Iron Horse Hotel. Sitting across the river from the museum, this boutique hotel, tucked in an old warehouse, has a gritty chicness. Riders will appreciate amenities like covered motorcycle parking, an on-site bike wash, rag bins and rooms equipped with custom hooks that can handle heavy leathers.
  • Every five years, Harley-Davidson celebrates its anniversary with rallies held worldwide, culminating in a blow-out, multi-day celebration in Milwaukee. This year was H-D’s 110th; its next anniversary celebration comes in 2018. Mark your calendar now.

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