With my quest for “behind-the-scenes” experiences, I have been disappointed to learn that there is really no capacity for that type of tour at the Air and Space Museum. Thus it was a very special treat when one of the other Fellows was able to call upon a family friend to give us a non-standard perspective on the exhibits.
I’ve been to many museums, but up till now, my attention has largely been on the featured objects. I didn’t give much thought to the design and construction of an exhibit until I met and spoke to the man who does all of the metalworking for the Air and Space Museum. Seeing the exhibits through his eyes and looking at his work gave me a much better understanding of how all the details of an exhibit combined to create an overall atmosphere and experience.
An excellent example of a well-designed exhibit is the Wright brothers’ exhibit called “Pioneers.” Orville and Wilbur Wright did their work building gliders and ultimately executing the first powered piloted flight from 1900-1903. Subconsciously, this exhibit has a very different atmosphere to it than the space exhibits, but I hadn’t really thought about why that was so. Part of it is certainly the warm gold lighting that bathes the Wright flyer and the Wright gliders in a soft glow, but part of the look is contributed by the fence that separates visitors from each of the planes. In this exhibit, each fence is made of wrought iron, as would be appropriate for the time period. That detail, which only acted on my subconscious until it was pointed out to me, makes a huge contribution to my sense of walking into the early 1900’s. The metalworker worked with the exhibit designers, who were not as familiar with period metalworking, to contribute to the overall effect, and each of the fences was constructed in the metal shop in the museum.
Because of our staff guide, we had the unusual privilege of exploring the new Time and Navigation exhibit that is currently being assembled. At some level, yes, it was a construction zone, but I was pretty excited about the novelty of getting an unofficial preview before the general public. I also smiled at our guide’s enthusiasm for the superb workmanship in some of the pieces, such as this large piece, which was used to put the markings on sextants. Here again, because the exhibit was unfinished, I was much more aware of the components that come together to create an experience. The display cases already hold various objects and artifacts, and since it is the Air and Space museum, the requisite aircraft are hanging from the ceiling, but the exhibit is more than those objects. There is a piece of a ship that was constructed to create a small “room” within the exhibit. The metal fasteners such as braces and bolts that make the ship look authentic were all constructed in the museum’s metal shop. Around the corner, a WWII Quonset hut stood in the corner, and its steel framework was also
constructed by the resident metalworker. At the end of the timeline was the self-navigating car that has been in the news more recently. Apparently one of the exhibit designers traveled to Arizona to take the pictures for the surrounding background. I don’t think I had ever appreciated how much of a good display is not only including interesting artifacts, it is also about providing context for those objects through the visual cues of the exhibit.
As we went back through some of the flight exhibits, I could start to see how much the expert metal work contributed to creating the context and environment for the airplanes. I especially liked this glorious sign for the military aviation exhibit. I can’t quite put my finger on why it feels so able to set the tone for the exhibit, but I know that it does. I didn’t take pictures of them, but even the heads of the 10” bolts that are used to hold signs together for the exhibits have some design that is related to the theme of each exhibit.
One of the most common trends in museum exhibits these days is encouraging visitors to interact with the material rather than just looking at artifacts. Most commonly, interaction is achieved through computer screens, but thanks to the expertise of our guide, the Air and Space Museum offers physical and mechanical interactive experiences as well. In the workshop, I was fascinated by this prototype mechanical interactive unit for the Navigation exhibit. In early navigation, instruments were extremely sensitive and needed to be kept in a stable environment. That was not exactly easy to achieve on a ship, but by using two interlocking gimbals, the instrument can be kept stable, even in rough seas. In this exhibit, visitors will be able to turn a knob to make “waves” under the boat, and when a miniature clock is added on top of the metal gimbals, it will become apparent how the stability was achieved.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world with over 10 million visitors annually. That’s more than the Louvre and in a much smaller space. Thus our guide explained that when he’s designing a piece, he builds it “for a battleship,” knowing that not only will it have many users, but it will also have the predictable number of teenagers who are trying to test their limits and impress each other.
I was also intrigued by how the metalworker signs his pieces. It’s not like a painting, which is easily signed, and I do understand that in the Smithsonian, the designers are generally not identified. Our guide explained that he likes to include a small metal mouse somewhere on his work as his own type of signature. In one case, he worked extensively with two interns on a project, so that work was identified by two mice for the interns, and a cheese to represent their boss.