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Personal Connections Make the Museum Meaningful

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Confession: I used to think airplanes were boring. When I left my home in Tucson, Arizona this May to begin a summer internship at the National Air and Space Museum, I thought that air and space history had nothing to do with me. And, I must confess, I had very little interest in them, either. My background is in art history, and my goal for the summer was to learn about education programs in a large museum with extremely diverse visitors – airplanes had nothing to do with it.

A few weeks after I arrived at the Museum, however, I was hooked. I talked with anyone who would listen about the things I learned at the Museum every day. I started reading in my free time about pioneering aviators. In short, I had been drawn in by the tractor beam that is created when a museum visitor makes a personal connection with an artifact or artwork. I learned how exciting airplanes can be when I came across a plane – and its pilot, Lowell Smith – that led me to learn about the role aeronautics played in shaping the community I live in and my family’s decision to move there, making it my home.

I had never heard of Lowell Smith until I saw his name painted on the side of the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago in the Pioneers of Flight gallery. Lieutenant Smith piloted the Chicago in the first flight around the world in 1924. As I read further I learned about his impressive career as a decorated Army officer who held 16 records for military aircraft in speed, endurance, and distance. In 1923 he piloted the first plane to successfully refuel in mid-air.

Lt. Lowell Smith stands on the left wing of the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago as he prepares to take off from Seattle, Washington on the first leg of the around-the-world flight. SI 78-4647, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives.

His early accomplishments are impressive, but it is Smith’s life after the around-the-world flight that intersects with mine. In February, 1942, he became the second commander of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Under Smith’s command, it became the top training base for B-17 and B-24 crews during World War II. Military airspace was defined from Tucson west to Yuma, near the California border, that is still in place today.

Thanks to Museum Specialist Carl Schuettler, I had the rare opportunity to look inside the cockpit of the Chicago while it was being cleaned. Here, I stand in the same spot where Lowell Smith stood when the above photo was taken. Photo by Robyn Squire.

Many things have changed at Davis-Monthan since Smith died in a horseback riding accident in 1945, but the primary purpose of the Base – pilot and crew training – remains. Thanks to the weather (surely you’ve heard about the “dry heat”), pilots can safely fly almost every day of the year in southern Arizona. These days Davis-Monthan is a training base for A-10 pilots, and the nearby Air National Guard base serves as an international training base for F-16 pilots.

My father relocated our family to Tucson in 1984 because of a job at that Air National Guard base – a job that exists because Lowell Smith and others defined military airspace and established training fields in the area. Without the Air Force and Air National Guard bases and the big aerospace companies they attracted to the area, Tucson would not have grown to be a metropolitan area of more than 1 million residents with a major research university. Contrary to my initial belief, air and space history does have something to do with me through the development of my community and the jobs that allow so many of us to live there.

My internship will end soon – much too soon for my taste, but the fall semester will begin in a few weeks and I have a full course load plus students of my own to prepare for.  When I return to Tucson I’ll take with me a head full of new-found facts about aeronautics history, a greater understanding of my hometown, and something applicable to my graduate studies as well – a personal experience with museum education. Museum educators work, both publicly and behind the scenes, to help every museum visitor make personal connections with the objects on display. These connections show visitors why they should care; why a visit to a museum is worth the time and trouble it takes. Beyond merely telling visitors what an object means, museum education programs allow each visitor to make his or her own unique and personally-relevant meaning from what might otherwise be just a bunch of “old stuff.”

Anne Thwaits is a sometime intern in the Education Division and a full-time graduate student in Museum and Community Education at the University of Arizona.

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3 thoughts on “Personal Connections Make the Museum Meaningful

  1. Every plane, every rocket, every artifact has great connections at NASM. I am happy for you to have connected.

    Many, many years ago I connected with the “Vin Fiz Flyer” through a magazine story.

    The NASM is my favorite museum. On July 19, 2009 I got to see a great Alan Bean art exhibit.

  2. While you are in Tucson, how about stopping by Davis-Monthan AFB and seeing if you could find a B-24 for NASM. You will get a heroes welcome if you can accomplish this.
    All the Best.

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