“Zen and the Open Road” To Feature Most Famous Forgotten Motorcycle

On View in the National Museum of American History’s Transportation Gallery
April 9, 2024
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Black, silver, and steel motorcycle with kickstand down against white background.

Robert M. Pirsig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk Motorcycle. Photograph by Jaclyn Nash, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1974 publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig with a special display, “Zen and the Open Road,” opening April 15. On view in the museum’s “America on the Move” exhibition, the display will feature Pirsig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk motorcycle and extends his story from the road to the sea, including his life aboard his sailboat, Arete.  

With the motorcycle as the centerpiece, visitors also can view Pirsig’s leather riding jacket and motorcycle helmet, the bike’s keys and the worn motorcycle maintenance manual that accompanied the ride. Pirsig’s typewriter, on which he wrote the book, as well as a typed manuscript and a signed first edition of the novel will be on display. Pirsig endured rejection by 121 publishers but persevered, eventually selling the book to the publisher William Morrow and Sons. With the publication’s royalties, Pirsig purchased a 32-foot sailboat that inspired his next novel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. A first edition of that 1991 book and the Apple II computer that he used to write it will also be showcased.

“When Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published, it had a revolutionary effect on Americans, both from a philosophical awakening to kick-starting a cultural movement that caused people to rethink and retool their relationships with technology,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “His fictionalized autobiography explored some of life’s most elemental questions for many of that generation and since.”

“This is the most famous forgotten motorcycle in American history,” said Transportation Curator Paul F. Johnston. “Pirsig was a trailblazer in motorcycle touring, including completing the monthlong, 5,700-mile trip with his son from Minnesota to California and back as well as his perseverance in documenting its celebration of freedom and the open road.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold more than 5 million copies and has been translated into 27 languages. The motorcycle and related objects were a gift to the museum from Pirsig’s widow, Wendy K. Pirsig. There are still devoted riders, readers and writers who recreate Pirsig’s open-road journey.

His novel tells a story about the relationships between people and machines: an issue he continued to explore as he and his wife sailed across the Atlantic, living aboard their sailboat for several years. Included in the display will be Pirsig’s navigational equipment, including a wristwatch, a calculator, a sextant and a chart on which he tracked the journey. After selling the sailboat, he kept the backup propeller as well as a treasured watercolor painting of his sailboat Arete as souvenirs.

In conducting research for the exhibit, Johnston uncovered a previously unknown educational graphic novel by Pirsig. Doctor Schnabel is a story about the deadly bubonic plague pandemic that swept across Europe in the 14th century. Known as the Black Death, that pandemic is estimated to have killed 25 million people.

“America on the Move” is a 26,000-square-foot exhibition that uses transportation as the vehicle to tell the history of America from the mid-1800s to the near present, including the coming of the railroad to a California town in 1876, the role of the streetcar in Washington, D.C., and the Winton, the car that made the first successful cross-country automobile trip in 1903. “Zen and the Open Road” will add to the rich transportation history documented at the museum.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, PK–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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Valeska Hilbig




Melinda Machado



National Museum of American History
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