Spoiler alert: Visitors who come to the Museum for the exhibition Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980 will find a Volvo in the galleries. Dedicated to the extensive cultural exchange between Scandinavia and the U.S. in the 20th century, the exhibition presents the Volvo and its innovative seatbelts as examples of design for social change.
The car in question is a 1964 Volvo P122S. Designed in 1956 by Jan Wilsgaard, the chief designer at Volvo from 1950 to 1990, the car was first produced in Sweden and later introduced in the United States at the 1959 International Auto Show in New York. It was chosen for Scandinavian Design and the United States for its pioneering seatbelt designed by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin. Exhibition co-curator Monica Obniski, former Demmer Curator of 20th- and 21st-Century Design, described the importance of including this specific Volvo model in the exhibition:
We wanted a range of objects to demonstrate the many dimensions of design, including industrial design. We discovered that the Volvo P122S was the first car to incorporate the three-point seatbelt standard in models (for Sweden in 1959; for the U.S. in 1963). That the car was marketed “Amazon” in Sweden and borrowed styling cues from Detroit-designed cars further demonstrated our ideas surrounding transnational design exchange.
But how does one get a car into the Milwaukee Art Museum? In preparation for the exhibition, Museum staff were charged with figuring out just that.
Planning for the Volvo’s arrival at the Museum began in 2019 for the exhibition’s original opening date in May 2020. The pandemic shifted the opening to 2023, and planning resumed in 2022. The first step was to determine how the car would get inside the Museum. “We decided the most direct route would be through the Museum’s front doors,” said Lydelle Abbott Janes, associate registrar for exhibitions and loans. “We measured all the openings and pinch points in the galleries and took photos of the route. Through emails and virtual meetings with our partners at Volvo Car USA, we determined a safe and logical route for the car.”
The Volvo arrived at the Museum from Los Angeles via semitruck on a chilly Tuesday morning. Matthew Hruska, owner operator of Chicago-based DriveShop, and his employee Anthony Giacalone assisted with unloading and maneuvering the car through the building. The car was delivered and taken through the Museum on a day closed to the public to avoid vehicle traffic outside and pedestrian traffic in the galleries. This allowed DriveShop to drive the car (yes, it works!) off the truck and up to the Museum’s front entrance. Once positioned, the car was put in neutral, turned off, and pushed through the front doors. Inside, Matthew steered the car while a team of two pushed it through Windhover Hall and down Baumgartner Galleria with well-choreographed precision.
The car was situated on its bespoke platform at the back of the Baker/Rowland Galleries. As Chief Art Preparator Arthur Mohagen noted, “having the dimensions and schematics for the car early on allowed us to build a robust platform that could handle the weight of the car. We contracted with a construction company to overbuild the platform to support the weight and a ramp to easily maneuver the car with little effort.” Once the car was in place, Matthew and Anthony cleaned the car and made it sparkle.
Getting the Volvo into the Museum was a process unlike any other and required careful coordination across multiple departments. Many thanks to Lydelle Abbott Janes, associate registrar for exhibitions and loans, for facilitating the arrival of the car (over multiple years); David Russick, chief designer, for configuring the placement of the car; the art preparators for organizing the building of the platform and assisting with the delivery; the facilities team for determining the logistics of housing a car in the building; the security officers for overseeing the arrival of the Volvo into the galleries; and Cleber Bonato, collection photographer, and Ted Brusubardis, director of gallery media and AV systems, for capturing photographs and video of the Volvo.
See the Volvo in person by visiting the exhibition Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980. Through July 23, explore more than 180 objects, including furniture, textiles, drawings, ceramics, jewelry, glass, and product designs that reflect the far-reaching effects of the Scandinavian and American cultural exchange.
P.S. Exhibition co-curator Monica Obniski took it for a spin while researching the exhibition. Of this exhilarating moment, she said, “I was blown away when Volvo USA offered the experience to drive the 122S around the parking lot in New Jersey. Since I know how to drive a manual transmission car, I jumped on the opportunity. The clutch was tricky and required some finessing. Thank goodness I had someone in the car to talk me through the nuances of driving an old stick shift!”
Fun fact: This car was also featured on season 9 of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with passenger Kristin Wiig. Seinfeld chose this sedan for Wiig due to her Norwegian heritage and her penchant for old Volvos. The episode is available to stream on Netflix.
- Jan Wilsgaard (Born United States, 1922–2016, active Sweden), Manufactured by Volvo (Gothenburg, Sweden, founded 1927), P122S (“Amazon”), designed 1956, this example 1964. Volvo Car USA. Photo by Cleber Bonato
- Nils Bohlin inside a Volvo, wearing his three-point safety seatbelt. Photo courtesy of Volvo Car USA
- Video of Volvo P122S (“Amazon”) entering the Milwaukee Art Museum by Ted Brusubardis
- DriveShop owner and operator Matthew Hruska and employee Anthony Giacalone prepare the car for the exhibition
- Co-curator Monica Obniski drives the P122S at a warehouse in New Jersey