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Fly Now! Making the National Air and Space Museum's Poster Collection Accessible, Online

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As mentioned in Dom Pisano’s recent post “From Collecting to Curating,” six interns, including myself, and two volunteers (with our supervisor, enough for a baseball team!) photographed, scanned and catalogued much of the museum’s collection of over 1,300 posters at the Paul E. Garber Facility‘s collections processing unit this summer. It sounds like a lot of posters, but you may not have seen any of them, unless you have a great memory of advertisements you glimpsed in airports over the years while running to catch your plane. Selections from the posters have been published, but the collection is now receiving the “full treatment” by museum staff, interns, and volunteers.

Intern Mark Leadenham prepares to examine posters with a microscope to determine what printing method was used. Photo by Amelia Kile.

Intern Katy Osterwald measures and cuts archival folders to appropriate sizes for housing the posters. Photo by Carl Bobrow.

This marks the first time the poster collection, which includes graphic art published from as early as 1827 up to the twenty-first century, has been accessible to the public as an archive, since the majority of it has remained in storage in Suitland, Maryland. The collection provides a wealth of information related to balloons, early flight, military and commercial aviation, and space flight, documenting aerospace history and technology while providing a window into popular culture. As a student of art history, I found the collection visually engaging and historically significant. As a young museum professional, I gained experience physically working with the objects, recording and organizing information, photographing, identifying methods used to print the posters, and even had a lot of fun!

The “Artbox,” where the unframed art is stored, before the new storage cabinets are installed. Photo by Katy Osterwald.

Contractors, volunteers and interns install all the shiny new cabinets in 3 hours. Thanks everyone! Photo by Ben Sullivan.

Now that the collection is online, scholars will be able to contribute to knowledge, study and discussion of this valuable resource. Working hands-on within a collection that was not accessible to many people, the group working on the project developed the feeling that this was “our” collection in a sense, and it is a thrill to now be able to share it. It is a diverse collection, wide-ranging in terms of subject, country of origin and time period, and thus it will make an excellent educational tool. Photographing and documenting the posters was part of a larger, ongoing effort to provide images and relevant information about the National Air and Space Museum’s art collection to the public, all while preparing the collections to move to the new Phase Two Collection Storage Facility at the Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center. So, take a look at the collection and tell us what you think!

Amelia Brakeman Kile is an intern in the Collections Processing Unit at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility.

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29 thoughts on “Fly Now! Making the National Air and Space Museum's Poster Collection Accessible, Online

  1. Pingback: Smithsonian Air and Space poster collection now online | Newsblog

  2. Thanks for putting these online! Saw them via BoingBoing, so I’m sure you’ll be getting lots of comments. In looking through the posters, I saw that the description of the one entitled ‘ Poster, Advertising, Commercial Aviation Bodensee-Toggenburgbahn Besichtigung der Zeppelinwerft Friedrichshafen’ is incorrect. The prices listed, and the service offered, is to take a train from various places in Switzerland to and from the Zeppelin works, with a tour of the works thrown in. You couldn’t fly on a Zeppelin for 4 Swiss Francs, I’m sorry to say.

  3. Great stuff – as a fan of both aviation and graphic design, this is a perfect meeting of my interests!

    One suggestion: Please move the individual poster info (Artist/Sponsor/Manufacturer/Date/etc) above the essay about the whole collection.

    It gets quite irritating having to scroll down past the exact same block of text to see specifics on every poster!

  4. Mecki,

    Thanks so much for your observation – we’ll be updating the entry. It is too bad it was not that cheap. Just think how cheap the discounted children’s tickets would have been. Wouldn’t it be great if kids up to 10 years old got discounted airline tickets, today?

  5. Pingback: Smithsonian scans aerospace poster collection | A Blog About History

  6. Hi Michael.

    Are you Tom Ward’s brother by chance? The largest poster was the first one that pops up, “A La Grande Fête Aerienne.” That one was taken by our skilled volunteer Ben Sullivan with…maybe a Nikon D5000 or D700, a tripod, and two softbox lights. That poster was framed, so it was set up on an easel in front of a gray backdrop. The softboxes were key. The department now benefits from the use of a small level that attaches to the shoe, and that is helpful.

    As for the large unframed posters, we had a copy stand rather than an easel, and no softbox lights – just three spots. Only the smaller posters were scanned. What kind of photography do you do?

    -Amelia

  7. Hey Michael,

    I was the photography intern for the project, so I’ll answer your question. We used a Fuji S200 with a Nikon 12-24mm wide angle zoom lens. Most of the smaller posters were photographed on a vertical clipboard that we came up with, made out of some thick foam-core for the backing set on an easel, another 2 inch strip of foam-core with binder clips across the top to pin the posters in place without harming them, and a linen tape strap along the bottom.

    The larger ones were done laying flat on another piece of foam-core set on the floor, with the camera suspended above on a boom tripod. With this set-up we had the camera attached to a computer, so we could take the shots remotely and make adjustments as needed, since it was quite difficult to get access to the top of the camera to look directly through the lens.

    We used two to three spots for the lighting on most of the images. All the posters had a color card placed nearby, so we could easily color correct later. It was cropped out for all of the online images of course.

    This project had quite the learning curve to it, and those of us who worked on it agreed that if we had to do it again, we would use the second set-up instead of the first. It turned out to be much quicker (once set up we could do about 40 posters a day instead of around 20 with the first set-up), and I feel like the images turned out better. Practice makes perfect I suppose!

    We ended up having to photograph about 800 of the posters, the rest had at some point been photographed using 4×5 color positive film which we were able to obtain from the NASM archives and rescan at a higher resolution (300dpi) using a film scanner, since previously they had been scanned at a very low resolution and uploaded into the database.

    As Amelia said, the largest poster is the A La Grande Fete Aerienne one, it measured about 5 ft x 6ft and is framed, so that one we (Allison Smith and I, with Carl Bobrow’s assistance) were able to use an easel in the museum’s lighting studio to photograph, using spots and the Fuji S200 on a tripod.

    Thanks for your questions!
    -Katy Osterwald

  8. Pingback: Air and Space Digitizes Flight Posters | Around The Mall

  9. Glad you are enjoying the posters, Brian, and thanks for your suggestion. The appearance of information about the collections on the website is something museum staff are working on, and improving the layout to have the specifics appear first is a priority.

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  12. Hi,
    This is absolutely great! Hope you have more coming.

    The only thing missing is some idea of the date of the posters. When they used.

    I really like the “seaplane ones”.

    When you drill down on a poster, would it be possible to add that data and to move the individual poster related data up to the top with thumb nail?

    Thanks again for making this collection available.

    John

  13. John,
    Thank you for your comments – we are so pleased you enjoy the collection. Some of the posters need to be studied more – so we are hoping to include more dates as they are further investigated. When a date has not yet been specified, that information does not appear in the information specific to the poster. However, many do have a date, like a poster titled “Servico Aereo Condor,” from around 1932. We are working on improving the display so that it is easiser to see poster specifics, too.

  14. @Katy Thanks for answering Michael’s question above in detail. I was going to ask the same question. Saw your detailed response before that. And BTW..great job done!!

  15. Great article. If you folks play baseball like you do your posters the other teams are in trouble. :)

    Wayne

  16. Hey Michael,

    I was the photography intern for the project, so I’ll answer your question. We used a Fuji S200 with a Nikon 12-24mm wide angle zoom lens. Most of the smaller posters were photographed on a vertical clipboard that we came up with, made out of some thick foam-core for the backing set on an easel, another 2 inch strip of foam-core with binder clips across the top to pin the posters in place without harming them, and a linen tape strap along the bottom.

    The larger ones were done laying flat on another piece of foam-core set on the floor, with the camera suspended above on a boom tripod. With this set-up we had the camera attached to a computer, so we could take the shots remotely and make adjustments as needed, since it was quite difficult to get access to the top of the camera to look directly through the lens.

    We used two to three spots for the lighting on most of the images. All the posters had a color card placed nearby, so we could easily color correct later. It was cropped out for all of the online images of course.

    This project had quite the learning curve to it, and those of us who worked on it agreed that if we had to do it again, we would use the second set-up instead of the first. It turned out to be much quicker (once set up we could do about 40 posters a day instead of around 20 with the first set-up), and I feel like the images turned out better. Practice makes perfect I suppose!

    We ended up having to photograph about 800 of the posters, the rest had at some point been photographed using 4×5 color positive film which we were able to obtain from the NASM archives and rescan at a higher resolution (300dpi) using a film scanner, since previously they had been scanned at a very low resolution and uploaded into the database.

    As Amelia said, the largest poster is the A La Grande Fete Aerienne one, it measured about 5 ft x 6ft and is framed, so that one we (Allison Smith and I, with Carl Bobrow’s assistance) were able to use an easel in the museum’s lighting studio to photograph, using spots and the Fuji S200 on a tripod.

    Thanks for your questions!
    -Katy Osterwald

  17. Thank you everyone for all the hard work making these wonderful posters available to the public. Is is possible to purchase any poster size prints? I have an aviation themed study with many collectibles, models etc, and a few of these would be a magnificent feature.

  18. Thank you for visiting the site, Tony. There are lots of posters available on the internet in various locations. You might like Joanne Gernstein London’s book which illustrates and provides a background for some of the posters in the collection. It’s called “Fly Now!: The Poster Collection of the National Air and Space Museum.” There’s another book sold by the Smithsonian store called “The Art of the Airways,” but perhaps you already have these in your study!

  19. Hello, I have been trying without success to find a poster of the International Aviation Tournament at Belmont in 1910. Can someone suggest anyplace that might sell a poster of this? Thank you.

  20. I ought to declare that this is extremely useful. I look forward to looking through a little more from this website.

  21. Looks like a very big project to say the least. Very interesting all the same. I’ll stop by again soon. Best of luck

  22. That’s a lot of work for posters. It’s amazing the effort and time that marketing takes. But looking at the collection they turned out great.

  23. I’d also liked to know what kind of equipment is necessary for scanning and photographing the large ones?

  24. what a treat now to have the museum’s posters accessible online.

    Daniel Tetreault.

  25. @ Education Guidebook:

    Thanks for your post. Have you seen Katy Osterwald’s response, above, from October 19th?

    Also some general news: the remainder of the posters that were photographed or scanned as part of this project are now online. These posters are generally commercial aviation posters from the mid-late 20th century. Copyright concerns with these posters were recently addressed, and we are proud to make them available to the public on the web.

    -Amelia

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