Corporate history is a strange thing. I first discovered this when I visited the BMW museum in Munich. The exhibition included a curving staircase along which were posters, in chronological order, of past BMW ad campaigns. Conspicuously absent was the time period 1933-1945. It was the coward’s way out of dealing with a difficulty — pretend it never happened.
Corporate history is basically commissioned history. It may be conducted by a scholar, but it’s not a scholarly endeavor; there is nearly always an agenda. The historian attempts to explain the past objectively, but the goal of a commissioned history is to project a positive image of the institution, to focus on its net positive impact. What company, institution or public entity wants to air its dirty laundry?
This came to mind when I read that Coca-Cola’s official historian, Ted Ryan, was leaving for Ford Motor Co. Ryan’s mission is described as sculpting and reframing how the world sees Henry Ford, yet there is no mention that the history plans to explore Henry Ford’s support of anti-Semitism and fascism.
Is it coincidental that Ryan comes from Coca-Cola, a company that has also sought to downplay its support of the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were rife with racism and provided a PR opportunity for Hitler?
To give BMW its due, in 2016 the German car manufacturer apologized for supplying the Nazi party, and its museum has also been renovated. According to reports, it now confronts and grapples with the Nazi period.
Will the Henry Ford history have the courage to do the same?
Shana Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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