Interlochen Designer Reimagines Detroit’s History

It took an Interlochen resident to reinterpret Detroit's history in a graphic way.

Gene Ullery-Smith's part in a $12 million renovation of the Detroit Historical Museum was to develop the graphics for the new galleries in the museum. All told, he created about 600 separate pieces, a process that relies on editing, rather than accumulating, stories.

"When presented with a subject like the history of Detroit, one's first reaction is 'Wow, that's big,'" he said. "Interesting stories are not hard to come by. It is the designer's job to separate the essential from the merely interesting; the compelling from the factoids."

The Midland, Mich. native sees the museum's renovation as a step in the renaissance of what was once one of America's greatest cities.

"I've fallen in love with Detroit," he said. "Previous to undertaking this job, Detroit conjured in my mind Ernie Harwell, rough neighborhoods, the Big Three. That's about it."

But after more than a year of exploring the city's history and culture, Ullery-Smith has a new perspective.

"Detroit's history – especially in the 20th century – is really America's history: industrialism, the automobile, post-slavery tensions, rock and roll, sports, suburbs, the role of manufacturing in warfare and so on," he said. "It's all in Detroit."

Some of the exhibits that Ullery-Smith worked on included Detroit-area inventions like Tupperware parties, outboard boat motor, and paint by number. A large part of his work focused on manufacturing, featuring plants like Willow Run, once the largest factory in the world, occupying 80 acres and employing 40,000 people.

Ullery-Smith also helped interpret Detroit's role, code-named "Midnight", in the Underground Railroad. The city was a place of refuge for slaves to cross to freedom in Canada.

Now, with the renovation complete, Ullery-Smith calls the reopening an unqualified success.

"The DHM is an old institution that has enjoyed a warm place in the public's heart, but the goal of the institution is not to be thought of fondly. The DHM needs to be vital and current," he said. "We did more than knock the dust off the old exhibits, we developed five new galleries and refurbished other existing spaces. It was a big effort and the public has responded favorably."

To learn more about Gene Ullery-Smith and his work, visit