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On 26 June, 1998 The Guggenheim Museum opened the show entitled "The Art of the Motorcycle". The objectives of the show were to display a selection of bikes exemplifying the significant designs over the roughly 100 year history of motorcycling. The show has since traveled to the Field Museum in Chicago, the Guggenheim Bilbao and to Las Vegas.

This show was (is) unique by several measures. The curatorial objective brought an array of bikes of a quality which had certainly never before been approached. This of course is due to the combination of resources possible at a major museum, and the curatorial excellence and discipline of the event staff (who were in fact still selecting and transporting machines in the week prior to the opening).

In achieving the objective of displaying machines which represented both unique and historically important steps in the evolution of motorcycling, the exhibit collected approximately 100 bikes. These were largely composed of bikes which were (or are) actively ridden, rather than only concours specimens. Several of the bikes displayed are machines still ridden in vintage racing.

The Guggenheim Museum, situated off Central Park in New York City uses a display space which is an open spiral. Upon entry to the museum, visitors were confronted with an F4, an amazing four cylinder superbike by MV Augusta. The exhibit proceeded in chronological order from the ground floor (which aside from the aforementioned F4, consisted exclusively of late 19th century machines.

Winding up through the first 3 floors, took visitors from 1900 through the 1930-40's including bikes which were effectively bicycles with motors (one such was a 4-cylinder Harley Davidson and much larger machines such as the Brough Superior (the preferred ride of T.E. Lawrence). This group included impressive design innovation, such as the French Megola, which mounted the radial engine in the front wheel, revolving the cylinders about a stationary crankshaft. The motorcycles of this era mostly featured manual lubrication and rudimentary controls.

The sections dedicated to the following decades, the 1940-50's featured both amazing design innovations, such as the classic Vincent Black Shadow (as well as an Elgin Vincent, a bronze and nickel plate beauty which was added too late to the show to appear in the exhibit's book). Naturally, this section also included many bikes of the WWII and post war eras, including the well known Harley and BMW military bikes. Possibly the best example in this array was the Norton Manx. The displayed bike is still raced (and featured some modifications to keep oil from its open valve actuation off of modern racetracks.

The 1960-80's saw wide adoption of motorcycles both in counterculture and in an increasingly affluent economy which (first in the US, then elsewhere) allowed for a wider use of motorcycles as recreation or sport. The exhibit's display demonstrated this, including a replica of the chopper featured in Easy Rider and an array of bikes from Honda (including the original Goldwing), Norton, Triumph, Ducati (a 1975 750 SS), Kawasaki and many others. The bikes on display included the early supersports as well as cruisers, cafe racers and hooligan bikes.

The show concluded on the 7th floor with an array of ultra modern and mostly high-tech equipment. Included are a minimal trials bike (used for stunt-like riding, competing to ascend near-vertical rock formations), a modern scooter and 916 and Monster bikes from Ducati. Also included are works of art from Aprillia and Bimota and the custom (fewer than 10 in existence) Britten V1000; bikes which radically changed many notions of the design of racing mechanics and have easily won nearly every race in which they've run.

Perhaps in part because of the novelty, and clearly also due to the wide appeal of the subject matter, the Art of the Motorcycle show drew more visitors than any other event the Guggenheim has run.

The show's curators included Charles Falco, a professor of solid state phisics and Ultan Guilfoyle a staff member of the Guggenheim, both riders and collectors of british motorcycles. The show was sponsored by BMW, which loaned only a small number of exquisite machines to be displayed. The larges single contributor of bikes was the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art.

References:
The art of the Motorcycle ©Guggenheim Foundation
Brit-Iron list archives http://listserv.indiana.edu/archives/brit-iron-l.html

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