WASHINGTON — Since the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, its entrance, filled with famous aircraft and artifacts, has remained largely unchanged. But the “Milestones of Flight” gallery is about to receive a major overhaul thanks to a $30 million donation from Boeing, the largest single corporate gift the Smithsonian has ever received. The renovation is set to begin this month and will take two years to complete, opening in 2016 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Air and Space Museum and the 100th anniversary of Boeing. The first extensive renovation of the grand hall will kick off years of change for Washington’s most popular museum in need of an updated design to match a broadening educational mission.
“This 21st century transformation helps us honor the past innovations while inspiring future innovations,” said museum Director Gen. J.R. “Jack” Dailey at a news conference Monday. Dailey noted that the museum will remain open during renovation. The first artifact, the wind tunnel fan from the 1930s, will be installed in November.
Peter Jakab, chief curator of the museum, recounted how the “Milestones” exhibition, with many aircraft suspended from the ceiling, was created to “wow” visitors from the moment they entered the museum. Museum-goers entered and saw “The Spirit of St. Louis” in the same foyer as the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, what Jakab calls, “An awe-inspiring visual experience meant to signal you are about to have one of the most exciting museum experiences in your life.”
But after nearly 40 years, aesthetics have changed, as well as knowledge and financing of space travel. Iconic symbols that were once part of the American collective consciousness have become less familiar to visitors.
“In 1976, people were as close to the end of the World War II as we are to the mid-1980s; Apollo was still a current events topic,” said curator Margaret Weitekamp. “We are very aware that we have adults with children visiting and the adults may not have been alive during the Cold War. We want to put objects in a little more context and tell some of the rich stories about what the objects represent.”
The revamped design will be more spacious and ordered, with a media wall and kiosks to give visitors more context on famous pieces. The square footage is set to grow to make room for future technological milestones and planned additions, including a model of the USS Enterprise from “Star Trek.”
The Air and Space Museum arguably has a more difficult task than many other museums in Washington: it commemorates and plans for innovation. But how does a federally funded museum celebrating innovation in the skies keep up with rapidly changing technology in a tight-fisted era? It’s a challenge museum officials acknowledge. While some of the exhibitions feature touch-screen technology, others have buttons and software seemingly plucked from ’90s arcade games.
“We’re not going to be able to keep up with …changing hardware in exhibitions,” Dailey said, but he noted that the museum now has wireless Internet access throughout its halls, making a complementary digital experience possible.
The museum has time to experiment with mobile additions to add context to its exhibits. Boeing’s $30 million gift will be paid out over seven years. Boeing has made previous gifts to the museum in its 38-year history, totaling $58 million. In addition to the renovation of the main hall, Boeing is funding overhauls of the “How Things Fly” children’s exhibit and new educational programs at the museum, including accredited course for teachers.
Museum officials have not released the cost of renovating the gallery or how much of this $30 million gift will go toward renovation. But the cost of renovation is high enough to earn Milestones a longer name: it is now the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.