The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has been wildly popular with all ages since it opened in 1976. In preparation for its 40 anniversary, the Smithsonian Air and Space museum is getting a major makeover.
The Wright Brothers’ plane, John Glenn’s space capsule, and many of the museum’s artifacts and displays in its giant Milestones of Flight gallery have not changed since its inception. But, the gallery is getting a major overhaul and modernization.
Boeing announced a $30 million donation last week to the Air and Space Museum, the largest corporate gift the Smithsonian has received for any of its museums, to help with the renovation. The new main gallery will be retitled the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. It will feature a new layout with better flow and more square footage, digital displays and media walls as well as what the museum is calling an integrated mobile experience. The completion timing coincides with Boeing’s 100 anniversary as well as the 40 anniversary for the museum.
The gallery’s original artifacts on display included many flight and space firsts: Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 supersonic jet, which was the first to break the sound barrier; Glenn’s Mercury capsule, which was the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth; Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, “Spirit of St. Louis,” which was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop; Apollo 11’s command module, which was the first to fly astronauts to the moon; and the Wright brothers’ craft, which was the first machine successfully made to fly. Since then, the gallery has added numerous other firsts and historic vehicles, such as SpaceShipOne, the first privately built vehicle to reach space.
But after nearly 40 years, museum and display aesthetics have changed, as well as public knowledge of space travel. Iconic symbols that were once meaningful to space exploration fans and part of the American collective consciousness are less familiar now.
After getting the major makeover, some of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum showpieces will have their own dedicated galleries. For example, the Apollo Lunar Module will become the centerpiece of a new “Apollo to the Moon” gallery, which will be developed to tell about NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions to educate younger generations about the old race to space.
The gallery will be expanded and the layout vastly changed. Recognizing changes in other newer or renovated museums, there will be a new signs system to help visitors find key artifacts more easily and a centrally located welcome center.
Visitors in the next two years should be aware that parts of the gallery will be closed at times to accommodate the renovation. Since the “Milestones” area is so highly visited (more than 310 million visitors to date), the museum wants to avoid closing the gallery entirely.
The National Air and Space Museum has a more difficult task than many of other museums in Washington. It celebrates innovation in a field that is constantly changing, but has not been able to keep fund its own innovations because of budget constraints. While the museum has wireless Internet throughout, many of the exhibits look dated and some interactive ones still have buttons and software that look 20 years old.
Boeing’s $30 million gift will be spread over seven years. In the past, Boeing has made previous gifts to the museum totaling $58 million. Besides funding the major makeover of the main hall, Boeing is helping the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum revamp its children’s exhibit that teaches “How Things Fly” and getting new educational programs, including accredited ones for teachers.
By Dyanne Weiss