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A New History of the Museum

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Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography

Before the recent appearance of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography (National Geographic, 2010) the Museum had two big, coffee-table books about itself. In 1979 Abrams published C.D.B. Bryan’s The National Air and Space Museum, a gorgeous and very expensive book for the time ($75.00—you’d have to triple that to get to current dollars). It was organized by exhibit galleries, a very logical way to present the Museum, but one that quickly became dated. It got a second life with a new edition in 1988 reflecting the Museum’s floor plan then. To replace it, we published (in collaboration with Bulfinch) Andrew Chaikin’s Air and Space: The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight in 1997. It was reissued in 2008, but it was already at the tail end of its sales life at that point.

It was in that latter year that Ted Maxwell, then Associate Director for Collections and Research, initiated a project to start a new book. He and publications officer Trish Graboske assembled a group of division chairs, curators and archivists to discuss how to do it. Contracting out the authorship, as was done with the first two books, had its advantages, but also meant that a significant fraction of the earnings did not go to the Museum. Although it put an added burden on the staff, we decided to write the next one in-house, and to make it a history of the Museum, not just a description of it, or a history of flight told with pictures from the Museum. Alex Spencer  (Aeronautics Division) and I (Space History Division) became the editors, the chapter authors would be Tom Crouch, Bob van der Linden, Dominick Pisano, Ted Maxwell and Dik Daso (all in Aeronautics, except Ted in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies). Melissa Keiser and Marilyn Graskowiak (Archives Division) would do the photo editing. We were pleased when the National Geographic Society wanted to publish the book, and we were then paired with their team, led by Susan Hitchcock. The book came together in scarcely over a year from the time when we began to work on it in summer 2009.

Thaddeus Lowe

Thaddeus Lowe goes aloft aboard the balloon Intrepid to observe Confederate activity during the Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862.

For me, the stories and the pictures of the Museum’s prehistory became the most fascinating things that came out of the book. In Chapter 1, Tom Crouch lays out the connections between the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, and ballooning that went back a decade before the Institution was founded in 1846. In mid-1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Henry lent support to Thaddeus Lowe , who was forming a balloon corps for the Union Army. That June Lowe made tethered ascents from the Mall directly in front of where the Museum now stands—a site that was then occupied by the Columbia Armory. Over fifty years later, another war, World War I, brought some of the first airplanes into the Smithsonian collections (the first was actually the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, acquired in 1911). Aircraft enthusiast Paul Garber began in 1920 as a junior curator and proceeded to build a world-class collection, as Bob van der Linden tells us in Chapter 2. Some of the book’s most interesting photos show the old Aircraft Building, or “Tin Shed,” behind the Castle that housed much of the collection. A few choice artifacts, like Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which Garber had been instrumental in getting, hung in the Arts and Industries Building.

Tin Shed

Built in 1918, the Aircraft Building housed most of the Museum's aviation collection for decades. Taken in 1938, this photo also shows a tank and artillery piece displayed by the front door.

Spirit of St. Louis

Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" was installed in the North Hall of the Smithsonian Institution's Arts & Industries Building on May 13, 1928.

Congress legislated the National Air and Space Museum into existence in 1946 as the National Air Museum, thanks largely to Paul Garber and the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, Henry A. “Hap” Arnold. But for some time little changed on the Mall except that the Tin Shed became more crowded. Garber had to create a makeshift storage location outside D.C., now named for him, to accommodate the massive increase in artifacts after World War II. They were often stored in deplorable conditions. In Chapter 3, Dom Pisano tells the story of the long struggle to get a building on the Mall, culminating in the spectacularly successful opening in July 1976. Many assume that that is when the National Air and Space Museum began, but as this book reveals, the organization was already three decades old then, and was built on a foundation of a previous century of Smithsonian involvement with flight.

Chapter 4 (by Ted Maxwell and Tom Crouch) and Chapter 5 (by Dik Daso) discuss the evolution of the Mall building after 1976, and of the creation of the Udvar-Hazy Center, respectively. These chapters were the most problematic to write, as the closer we got to the present, the more difficult it was to gain any perspective on events that many of us had personally experienced. Especially tough, of course, was deciding what to say about the B-29 Enola Gay, not only the 1994-95 national uproar over our proposed exhibit about the first atomic bombings, but also the previous half century in which the airplane was intertwined with the Museum’s history, and the following near-decade it took to complete the restoration and assembly of the full aircraft for the 2003 opening of the Museum’s companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  In fact, this aircraft was one of the main reasons why we decided to have four “interchapter” features, telling decade-long stories that stretched across the boundaries of the five chapters. (In addition to the Enola Gay, these cover the Institution’s long controversy with the Wrights that delayed the arrival of the 1903 Flyer, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard’s intimate engagement with the Smithsonian, and the partnership between the Museum and NASA).

Enola Gay

The historic Boeing B-29 "Enola Gay" is shown here just after being restored and re-assembled in 2003.

When you add more than 700 photos, ten layouts of artifact collections, ten features on famous aircraft and artifacts, ten longer quotations from veterans and observers of the Museum, a foreword by John Glenn and an afterword by Director J.R. Dailey, we feel that we really have created not only a gorgeous gift book, but also a professional history of the Museum, one likely to last for many years to come.

Michael J. Neufeld is Chair of the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

View the Museum’s interactive timeline, featuring images from the book.


5 thoughts on “A New History of the Museum

  1. Pingback: Aviation News November 19, 2010 :: N8JW

  2. As one of the many curators who wrote bits and pieces for the book, I want to record my appreciation to the editors for making the book a reality. It is my hope that reading it will stimulate memories and associations in those who have visited the museum and that in turn they will share their impressions of their visits, along with their encounters with air and space flight, via this blog.

  3. As a long time visitor to the ca 1976 National Air and Space Museum building and the previous iteration or lack thereof, I look forward to reading the history of the Museum. One of my recollections (if it serves me right) as a young child is of seeing the rockets parked outside the old Smithsonian “Castle”.

  4. The old “quonset hut” version of Air & Space was one of my favorite visits at the Smithsonian. I think I remember the tank and the artillery piece too, although I wouldn’t have visited before 1955 or so, and I may have a somewhat “creative” memory on that. The old photo of the Spirit of St. Louis reminds me how much fun the Arts & Industries building used to be, back when all the industrial/technological exhibits were displayed in those old wood, glass and metal exhibit cases with their yellowing typewritten descriptive placards. I had a summer job at the Smithsonian in the mid-60s doing inventory control–unfortunately assigned to a desk rather than ranging forth, as some of the team did, with thick computer printouts showing what inventoried furniture, typewriters, display cases, microscopes etc. the various departments were supposed to have, then checking if the items actually existed or not. So it was a mundane job for me, but what an exciting place to work regardless. I made my daily trek to my 4th floor office in the Natural History building past the Hugo Worch piano collection, then an aggregation of dusty, busted-up, out of tune keyboard relics arrayed (due to lack of space) around the 3rd floor rotunda gallery. With a past like mine, I follow the Smithsonian’s fortunes as best I can from a distance, and am looking forward to seeing the book and visiting Udvar-Hazy (never been)!

  5. I was excited to find this under the tree this Christmas! I can’t wait to spend some quality time with it.

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