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Harley-Davidson Museum rolls into the future

Museum in the company's hometown of Milwaukee offers a glimpse at the history of Harley-Davidson and its motorcycles with an advanced mix of audio visual displays. CNET takes a tour.

This sculpture, "Dynamic Hill Climber," sits outside the Harley-Davidson Museum near the Milwaukee riverfront. John Scott Lewinski/CNET

MILWAUKEE--There's no better time to visit the Harley-Davidson Museum here than the July 4th weekend. The often brutal Great Lakes weather smiles on you with blue skies reflecting on the nearby riverfront. The huge Summerfest music festival roars not too far away. And the rebellious, proud image of America's oldest active motorcycle manufacturer fits the patriotic mood.

But museums generally look back at history, the minds behind Harley-Davidson looked to use the 3-year-old attraction to promote the company's push to modernize its image.

Built on waterfront property that was once a Morton Salt factory, the $70 million-plus complex documents the engineering history of Harley-Davidson and the development of the uniquely American motorcycle culture that developed throughout the 20th century. Founded in 1903, Harley-Davidson was the only surviving American motorcycle company until a British firm begin making a small number of Indian motorcycles in the U.S. around 2006.

The museum examines the design and engineering history of the American bike from its humble beginnings in a small shack near downtown to the war years through the post-war development of motorcycle culture to the 21st century evolution of Harley-Davidson. Along the way, engineering enthusiasts can track the evolution of cycles from their conception as simple, motorized pedal bikes to powerful V-Twin touring machines to the sleeker sport bikes of today. The complex contains a cafe, restaurant, and gift shop so you can take a piece of Harley-Davidson home.

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• The 2011 Harleys roll off the line (photos)
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Rather than rely on just a large space stuffed to the gunnels with old bikes, museum designers included modern audio visual displays such as a projected re-creation of an old motorcycle race on a wooden track and a life-size, moving re-creation of the robots used in Harley-Davidson construction. The company no longer wants folks to assume it makes bikes only for older riders, and the look of the museum reflects that.

Finally, if all of the motorcycle culture drenching the museum makes you curious about riding an iron horse, you can sign up for the free Jumpstart experience. Novices can mount a fueled and ready Harley-Davidson mounted on a stationary brace and rollers. Would-be riders can learn how to start a bike, the locations of all controls, and how to shift through the gears while the rumbling engine shakes a little adrenaline up their torso.