Panoramic view of Detroit cityscape at night overlooking the water

Motors and Motown: A Historical Tour of the Rise of Detroit

Panoramic view of Detroit cityscape at night overlooking the water

Motors and Motown: A Historical Tour of the Rise of Detroit

Detroit’s history is as complex as the Motown Records that were recorded there. Between car history and music history, discover the people and industries that contributed to the rise of Motor City when you visit these three historical museums on your next visit to Detroit.

Automobiles and music were two of the key driving forces behind Detroit’s economic rise in the 19th century, and the city’s cultural and historic sites pay fascinating tribute to the pioneers in those industries. At three historical museums in Detroit, visitors can immerse themselves in the intriguing success stories of some of the city’s best-known, groundbreaking, and influential leaders and innovators.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Showcasing more than 35,000 artifacts and archival items, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History takes visitors across centuries and continents, chronicling the stories of African civilizations and the African American experience in America. It celebrates those who fought for freedom and justice as well as the forces behind the successful African American businesses and communities that make up modern-day Detroit.

Exterior view of Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on clear day
Source: Adobe Stock

The museum’s exhibits include collections devoted to the Underground Railroad and its abolitionist heroine Harriet Tubman as well as the Sheffield Collection, which documents the labor movement in Detroit. The museum’s crowning glory is the stunning glass Ford Freedom Rotunda, measuring 95 feet wide by 65 feet high.

The permanent exhibit “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture” anchors the museum and comprises more than 20 galleries and 22,000 square feet. The ongoing “Detroit Performs!” exhibit spotlights groundbreaking Detroit performers who won international acclaim, including Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. The permanent “Inspiring Minds: African Americans in Science and Technology” exhibit focuses on achievements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The Detroit Historical Museum

The Detroit Historical Museum spotlights the minds and muscle behind the city’s industrial might and humanitarian will. The “America’s Motor City” exhibit chronicles Detroit’s car history as the nation’s automotive manufacturing nexus, beginning with early inventors and manufacturers like Charles Brady King and R.E. Olds all the way through to the bold entrepreneurs behind the modern automotive industry.

Inside view of Detroit Historical Museum’s Automotive Showplace featuring a Cadillac production line

Inside view of Detroit Historical Museum's Automotive Showplace featuring a Cadillac production line
Source: Adobe Stock

The museum’s Automotive Showplace features vintage cars from its private collection and highlights car culture in America. Car buffs can even watch a Cadillac body drop onto its frame in an exhibit featuring machinery taken from a former assembly plant.

In its “Doorway to Freedom” exhibit, the museum examines Detroit’s critical role in the Underground Railroad. The importance of its factories and workers to the American World War II effort gets some attention in the “Arsenal of Democracy” exhibit.

The Motown Historical Museum

The Motown Historical Museum occupies a modest structure that belies its enormous influence on American music and culture. Housed in the former recording studio and home of music impresario Berry Gordy — also the headquarters of Motown Records until 1968 — the building was known as “Hitsville, U.S.A.”

The museum includes the legendary Studio A, where hits such as “Stop in the Name of Love” by The Supremes were recorded. Visitors can view the original instruments and recording equipment that helped create the world-famous Motown sound. Legendary producers such as Smokey Robinson and Lamont Dozier created magic and crafted chart-topping hits by The Temptations, The Marvelettes, and many others on the recording console in the studio’s control room.

White and blue exterior view of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit just before dusk
Source: Adobe Stock

In Berry Gordy’s flat on the upper floor, visitors can view historic memorabilia, including Gordy’s stereo and the dining table that was used for packing records for shipping during Motown Records’ early days.

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