What Would You Do? How to Reinvent America’s Most Popular Museum

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You’re assigned to create an exhibit for the seven-year ~$1 billion renovation of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum currently underway.  It’s the most visited museum in the United States, and the third most visited one in the world, with over 8.6 million visitors in 2017.

So, what do you do?

That’s the task at hand for this famed museum with its enormous collection of over 60,000 artifacts, 5,500 works of art, 1.75 million photographs, 14,000 videos/films and 12,000+ cubic feet of documents in 23 galleries and presentation spaces.

According to Dr. Ellen Stofan, the newly-minted head of the museum and the first woman in that influential role, you focus on reaching middle-school kids.

Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., Director, Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumSmithsonian National Air and Space Museum

When I interviewed Stofan recently at their Udvar-Hazy location at Dulles Airport, she explained that they focus on these young people, because they are the astronauts, astrophysicists, astronomers, engineers, computer scientists and other professionals and leaders of the future who will take American aerospace into the next 50 years and beyond, and said they visit the most.

“What does the public want to know? What does the public need to know?…What are our amazing artifacts that people have to see? What do we want people to walk out of these galleries and think about and understand? Whose stories are we going to tell to help illustrate that? … How do we use technology?”

These are the key questions Stofan said they are answering as their transformation evolves.  They have historians, script writers/storytellers, educators, curators, technologists and exhibit designers who collaborate to “tell rich, impactful stories” with their massive collection in new ways in the museum’s two locations and online for those who cannot visit in person.

Here are strategies they are employing, based on my conversation with Dr. Stofan:

  • Tell stories through art, culture, science, technology and people: Stofan described the museum as, “an art museum…. we’re a culture museum… we are a history museum… (telling) the story of the human struggle against gravity…So, we’re really trying to tell this overall integrated story of the desire for humans to get up off the ground…and eventually make it to Mars.” They even have a model of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.

Astronaut on the moon – airandspace,.si.eduairandspace,.si.edu

  • Span the arc of aerospace innovation: This arc spans from the early flight attempts, through to the airplanes we travel on, to “fighting a war with airplanes where you could look the other pilot in the eye” (such as in WWI, WWII and Vietnam), to Neil Armstrong as the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969 – in the Apollo 11 mission and the video of him saying, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – with a through line to drones, the International Space Station and the impending forays into private space travel being developed by Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.   “It’s the story of American ingenuity and hard work,” Stofan said.

Dr. Ellen R. Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director, National Air and Space Museum, talks with girls during museum’s She Can Summer Camp, 2018.Photo credit: NASM photo by Jim Preston

  • Show many faces: “This country is going to rely on a strong workforce in science, technology, engineering and math. And, we know we have not been tapping into the talent of all of our population…So, in my mind, it’s our job…to make sure that every child that comes through that museum can see themselves in these discoveries… because I want to inspire them. I want to inspire the first girl on Mars.  I want her to say, ‘I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and I saw a story about Bessie Coleman, I saw a story about Mae Jamieson and that’s what inspired me to want to go to Mars.” 

    Neil Armstrong’s space suit – Kickstarter campaign pageSmithsonian Kickstarter campaign page

  • Talk about all the jobs: Stofan insisted they will use their platforms to explain “the careers that underpin these great achievements,” citing that the Apollo missions took 400,000 people.  “There are designers who design space suits,” for example, and administrative roles, from human resources and communications, to finance and IT.
  • Explain how the planet is connected: Stofan described one of the new exhibits, called “One World Connected” that will help visitors understand the earth as a whole, and how its ecosystem works.  This includes how the climate is changing, biodiversity, weather, oceans and agriculture, and what it means for humans.  Using historical and geologic data NASA has been collecting since 1960, and earth imaging, they can illustrate the changes and their impact “from the Arctic down to Antarctica.”

When “it” doesn’t work.Pixaby

Congress appropriated $650 million for the public museum’s renovation and the museum is raising an additional $250 million from private sources for new exhibits.  They are leveraging new strategies for fundraising too.  For example, they raised $719,779  through a Kickstarter campaign to restore the original spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore when he took those few steps into the history books (from 9,477 donors who gave from $1 to $9,000 each).  The restored suit will be part of a new exhibit called Destination Moon opening in 2020.

“If museums are going to stay relevant into the future, they’re going to have to change, because everything else is changing….How can we as a community come together… and make this place even better?” Stofan asked.

So, what would you do?

Washington DC, USA-September 9, 2016: These people were spotted outside the Air and Space Museum at the National Mall in Washington DC. They are waiting to get inside to attend the Boldly Go 50 Celebration which celebrates 50 years of Star Trek television series and movies. Inside the model of the Star Trek Star Ship Enterprise featured in the first television series has been restored. Other events include movies, lectures and a costume contest.

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