Drawing Inspiration from the Past

History museums have many functions, from educating visitors to holding up a mirror to society. But mostly, they explain to us how things once were.

The new Museum of Springfield History does just that, but we hope that it can also inspire us with regard to the way things can be — again.

The new facility, which opened its doors this past weekend, is a real gem. It is a sparkling addition to the collection of museums and attractions at the Quadrangle, and it holds considerable promise as a drawing card for visitors from across the region and perhaps well beyond.

But the museum, with its collections of Indian Motocycles, two Rolls Royces built right here in Springfield, Gee-Bee airplanes (one real, one a replica), and countless other symbols of the region’s proud industrial past, can potentially do much more than be a mere tourist attraction.

Indeed, the displays on the walls and in the cases reflect a time when Springfield was thriving, when its streets were teeming with activity, when its factories were employing tens of thousands, and when the community was known across the country as a center of innovation.

It can be all of that again. At least, that’s what we hope visitors come away thinking.

There is much to inspire people at the new history museum, starting with the products that were once produced here. The list includes automobiles, motorcycles (or motocycles, as they were then called), trolley cars, guns (starting at the Springfield Armory and then at Smith & Wesson and other shops), wrenches, toys, and the first practical ice skate, among many others.

With each display of a product there is usually a corresponding photo of the plant at which it was produced. There’s Everett Barney’s ice-skate-making facility in Springfield’s South End, the massive Indian Motocycle plant in what is now Mason Square, and a complex of buildings along the river in the North End where trolley cars were made and shipped to every corner of the country.

But what might also inspire people are some of the other pictures on the walls. Two, for example, show a similar scene — the corner of Main and Bridge streets in Springfield — a quarter-century apart, 1916 and 1940.

They show changed styles in clothing and hats, dramatic evolution in both the automobile and the trolley, and brave police officers directing traffic from the middle of a busy intersection. But they show something else: sidewalks clogged with pedestrians, more women than men, making their way to and from a collection of fine department stores, theaters, restaurants, and other destinations.

If one didn’t know this was Springfield, they might have guessed it was a section of New York City.

It would easy to say that things can never again be the way they were in these photos, because that is the logical way of looking at the short- and long-term future not only in Springfield but in other former industrial centers.

The manufacturing sector in this region will likely never thrive as it did 100 or 200 years ago. Competition is now global, and it simply doesn’t make much economic sense to build large plants in the Northeast sector of the U.S. Meanwhile, retail remains sparse in the nation’s urban centers, having moved years or decades ago to suburban malls, located right off the highways, where parking is plentiful. Now, the sidewalks of Springfield are all but empty. Downtown just isn’t the place to be anymore.

We can’t turn back the clock and make Springfield and other area cities thrive as they did a century or more ago. But we can, and must, gain inspiration from the past and work to make Springfield and this region more like it was then.

Downtown in the City of Homes will never look like it did in 1916, but it can, once again, be a place for more people to live, work, and play. As for industry, well, the landscape won’t look like it did in those pictures, but this can once again be a center for innovation in everything from renewable energy to medical device making.

As we said, the new history museum will likely provide a real spark for the region’s tourism business. But it can, and hopefully will, do much more.

It could inspire progress for the future with a stunning look at the past.

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