A silver 1963 split-window Corvette with a red interior – the iconic second-generation model that forever changed the trajectory of “America’s sports car” – is the first car to greet visitors of the National Corvette Museum’s latest long-term exhibit.
“When I put this exhibit together, I knew I had to have a ‘63 split window, because that’s the car that inspired so many designers, so many people within General Motors, to love cars,” said Bob Bubnis, NCM’s head collection curator and exhibits manager. “They describe it like it was like seeing a spaceship.”
It is followed by a vibrant blue 1957 Chevrolet Corvette SS embellished with a number one, one of Chevrolet’s first ventures beyond show car to performance-ready race car, and a 1961 Mako Shark inspired by its namesake animal, featuring a white underbelly that blends into blue then black from the car’s bottom to top.
Elsewhere in the 6,500-square foot Driven by Design exhibit, a blue wire Corvette outline hangs from the ceiling above various design models in glass cases, Corvettes slowly rotating in a circle, a wall of design sketches mimicking the evolution from the 1950s to now and an interactive build-your-own Corvette activity.
The original idea for an exhibit solely focused on design began more than a decade ago, but the deeper research and collection effort has been in progress for the past three years, said Sharon Brawner, NCM president and CEO.
The exhibit was planned by the museum’s curatorial staff alongside Tom Peters, a retired GM design chief, and displays artifacts from the museum’s collection that haven’t been seen before.
“We certainly want it to be a little bit of a wow factor when you come around the corner and you see this exhibit,” Brawner said. “You see bursts of color, movement, technology and interactive exhibitions and that’s everything that people want in a museum today.”
Driven by Design opened to the public Wednesday. While it is a long-term exhibit, Bubnis said that like Corvettes themselves, it will constantly evolve as they gather more stories and switch out cars.
Video screens dispersed throughout the exhibit combine historical film footage, photographs and more recent interviews to provide context. This is critical to the success of the exhibit in educating and inspiring viewers, Brawner said.
“Otherwise, you come in and you’re just looking at a car,” she said. “You’ve got to give it context, you have to give it depth and texture as you’re walking through to really get a great experience.”
The aim of the project is to inspire people – not just car people, but people in general, Bubnis said.
He hopes what shines through is Corvette’s storyline, which includes people like Ed Welburn, a Black American who was told he would never rise up in the company because of his race and ended up as the highest-ranking Black American in the global automotive industry as GM global vice president of design.
“It’s not really about cars; it’s about the guy who couldn’t drive a Corvette because he was in a wheelchair, but he was still sketching them out in the studio. It’s about somebody like Ed Welburn,” Bubnis said. “These are stories of triumph through adversity, people who believe in themselves. And that’s really the story behind Corvette.”
Brawner hopes kids who visit the museum who may not have any engineering or mechanical interest but love to draw, work with aerodynamics or explore historical evolution can see themselves in the exhibit. Great museums both educate and inspire, she said.
When she took over as president and CEO of NCM about a year ago, she said she promised to bring change, modernization and technology to the museum. Now, Brawner wants the Bowling Green community to feel proud and excited to share the “Smithsonian Institute of Corvettes,” as she dubs it.
Just outside NCM on Tuesday night, Corvette Club members drove old and new models along the road leading to the museum in a colorful procession. These kinds of relationships are what made the exhibit possible, Bubnis said.
“There’s that old saying that people come for the cars but stay for the people,” he said. “That’s the reason we’re here. When you look at the NCM, we were not funded by GM. Fans built this place. It was our community that built this place.”