The reimagined exhibit spaces at the National Air and Space Museum include “Destination Moon” and “Exploring the Planets,” and are the first phase of a seven-year, $900 million transformation.
Margaret Weitekamp was convinced that what she was witnessing was not real.
The chair of the National Air and Space Museum’s space history division was certain a photo taken in one of the new galleries was a rendering, one she had seen many times before.
“My first thought was, no, that’s the rendering of what it’ll look like,” Weitekamp said. Then Weitekamp noticed the construction cones in one of the image’s corners. “Oh, it looks exactly like the rendering! It went exactly as planned (opens in new tab) “She stated.
The public will get its first chance to compare previously released artist concepts with the real, reimagined galleries when the Smithsonian reopens the National Air and Space Museum’s(opens in new tab) flagship building on Oct. 14 in Washington, D.C. Only half of the building — eight exhibitions on the museum‘s west side — is complete; the east wing will take a few years longer to complete the $900 million exterior and interior renovation(opens in new tab).
However, based on the demand for free timed-entry passes (opens in new tab), access to just some of the Air and Space appears to be far preferable to none at all (the building has been closed since late March).
In an interview with collectSPACE.com, Jeremy Kinney, associate director for research and curatorial affairs at the Air and Space Museum(opens in new tab), said, “All of this is just becoming real for the staff, and they’re ready to share it with the public.” “There is also an openness and enthusiasm for what the feedback on the exhibitions will be.”
“This is the last test. You can do audience surveys, testing, prototyping, and discussions with people who have experience with the visitor experience, but now it’s time to see how well it works. We are excited about it because we want to learn from it “He stated.
Four of the eight galleries are dedicated to aviation (“America by Air,” “Early Flight,” “Thomas W. Haas We All Fly,” and “Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age”), two bridge aeronautics and astronautics (“Nation of Speed” and “One World Connected”), and two are dedicated to space exploration (“America by Air,” “Early Flight,” “Thomas W. Haas We All Fly,” and “Wright Brothers (“Destination Moon” and “Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery”). However, the renovations extend beyond the display areas.
The exhibition areas, of course, are the reason people visit the museum, and they are the true highlights of the new work. In addition to artifact displays — in “Destination Moon,” for example, Alan Shepard’s silverly pressure suit stands next to his Mercury capsule, on which he became the first American to fly into space — new interactives transport visitors to new worlds.
“The new ‘Griffin Exploring the Planets’ gallery takes you on a fresh look at our solar system, almost literally coming from the outside in,” said Weitekamp. “It really will put people in touch with some of the most cutting-edge science being done by our own planetary geologists on staff at the Smithsonian and housed at the National Air and Space Museum.”
“There’s a wonderful, immersive interactive in the middle [of the gallery] where you can wheel or walk into the space to have this visual experience of what it’s like to stand on another world,” she explained. “It envisions you on the moon, Mars, or Venus.”
Although there are still galleries devoted to each, the new exhibitions find ways to highlight the “and” in Air and Space.
“Before, we had one side [of the museum] dealing with air and the other was space. Now we have a mix,” said Kinney. “So when our visitors come in, whether they come to see an airplane or a spacecraft, they are going to see both just by going through the building. We made a conscious effort to bring those two stories together(opens in new tab).”
A supersonic jet flown by a record-breaking aviator, for example, is displayed on the far end of the west wing, outside of the “Nation of Speed” and “Exploring the Planets” galleries.
“Jackie Cochran flew a T-38 for us. It is not the plane in which she broke the sound barrier, but it is the plane in which she set eight different records, which are stenciled on the nose “Weitekamp stated. “We’ll have a large screen behind it with some videos, including one about Jackie Cochran herself, which connects her to the larger world of women in aviation.”
“And then we’ve got a fantastic video about the T-38 and its role in military training, as an astronaut trainer, and as a demonstration aircraft,” she added. “I love how we use the big screen to tell multiple stories. They are based on that one object in order to familiarize people with Jackie Cochran as a pioneering aviator, but they also look at how the T-38 has been such a formative and bridging technology for both aviation and spaceflight.”
Similar crossovers can be found in “One World Connected,” which contrasts the role of airplanes in making connections across vast distances with how satellites in orbit facilitated global communications, and “Nation of Speed,” which juxtaposes race cars and rockets to explore how our fascination with moving faster has shaped our national identity.
“It has been a daunting task to reach into every corner of the museum,” Kinney said, “but it has been an amazing opportunity for the curators, educators, collection staff, exhibit designers, exhibit production staff, and everyone else involved.”