So, you waited in line outside the Museum till sweat trickled down your back. You managed to find the touchable Moon rock amid the swirls of day-glow youth group tee-shirts and fellow photo-snappers gawking about in the international flash mob that is the Milestones of Flight gallery. You gazed up at the Spirit of St. Louis and upon Apollo 11’s Columbia. You found the Wright Flyer, lost the kids in How Things Fly, and dutifully trekked through a century-plus of flight history.
Now, amid the second-floor jostle, you have just watched the charming glockenspiel-like contraption over the entrance to Time and Navigation do its thing. As you turn to leave, you suddenly stop, frozen in wonder, beholding an oasis so calm and cool and quiet that your airplane-addled, spaced-out brain can hardly believe it isn’t a mirage.
It’s not. On your floor plan it’s labeled Flight and the Arts. And much to their loss and to your relief, most visitors overlook it.
The National Air and Space Museum has always had an entire gallery devoted to art. Over the years, Flight and the Arts has hosted around 30 diverse exhibitions. The tri-part installation now on view neatly encompasses the three main kinds of shows that appear here. Some, like High Art, feature the Museum’s own extensive collection of aviation and space art. Others, like Suited for Space, are traveling shows produced by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Still others, like Searching for Goldilocks, are Museum-produced exhibitions featuring works by single or multiple artists on aviation- or space-related themes.
When the Museum first flung open its doors in 1976, Flight and the Arts was a two-level exhibition space (offices now occupy the upper level) displaying works mostly from the Museum’s own extensive collection.
That initial show was replaced in 1979 with Our Beautiful Earth, which featured photographic views of our world, from some of the earliest photos taken from balloons in the 1800s to the distant view of the Earth and Moon taken by Voyager I on its way to Jupiter. Views of our home planet would again be featured in Earth Views in 1986, which displayed the top entries in a nationwide art contest sponsored by the Museum in conjunction with the opening of the permanent gallery Looking at Earth.
One of my favorite Flight and the Arts exhibitions was another Earth-views show. Aerial Inspirations in 1994 featured the silk batiks of South Carolina artist, photographer, and pilot Mary Edna Fraser. Her beautiful dyed fabric works depicted scenes inspired by aerial photographs and satellite imagery. It was one of the most vibrantly colorful and unusual art shows ever mounted in the gallery.
Flight and the Arts has hosted many exhibitions of aviation art, from Assignment: Aviation (photo-realist paintings from the Stuart M. Speiser collection) in 1981 to this past year’s commemoration of the centennial of Marine Corps aviation, Fly Marines! Several shows have focused on some of the world’s most accomplished aviation artists: At Home in the Sky: The Aviation Art of Frank Wootton in 1983, Into the Sunlit Splendor: The Aviation Art of Williams S. Phillips in 1987, and Horizons: Paintings and Drawings by Robert Taylor in 1988.
Space artists have received their due as well. The Art of Robert McCall in 1984 celebrated the famous artist whose huge work The Space Mural: A Cosmic View in the Museum’s South Lobby remains a popular backdrop for visitors’ photos. Alan Bean: Painting Apollo in 2009 featured the impressionistic works of the Apollo 12 astronaut and fourth man to walk on the Moon. The remarkable range of space art shows has included Fire and Ice: A History of Comets and Art in 1985; Art of the Cosmic Age, a joint exhibition of works by U.S. and U.S.S.R. artists in 1991; Spectacular Saturn in 2009, comprising stunning images from the Cassini-Huygens mission to the ringed planet; and several exhibitions highlighting works from NASA’s art program.
Flight and the Arts has not always been a quiet refuge in an otherwise bustling museum. Star Trek in 1992, the Museum’s first popular culture extravaganza, proved so popular that timed tickets had to be issued. The same was true for Star Wars: The Magic of Myth in 1997. The two exhibitions featured artifacts and images from the iconic science fiction TV show and groundbreaking George Lucas film trilogy.
You can’t look back on Flight and the Arts without mentioning one of its most memorable attractions. When the gallery opened in 1976, it displayed a loaned work by English artist Rowland Emett, a whimsical sculpture called The Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D. In 1980 the Museum acquired its very own Emett sculpture, S.S. Pussiewillow II. This indescribable kinetic work soon became a favorite of adults and children alike and remained on display for over 10 years. In 1989 more of Emett’s quirky contrivances joined the Pussiewillow when Too Late for the Past, Too Early for the Future: Drawings and Things by Rowland Emett opened. After that exhibition closed in 1990, Pussiewillow II was finally taken off display. Visitors with long memories still ask about it.
To spark your own memories of these and other shows, I’ve compiled this list, which, to the best of my knowledge, includes the names of every major exhibition (and a few smaller exhibits) that have appeared in Flight and the Arts since 1976. You can also find more images of some the gallery’s past exhibitions here.
So anyhow, thanks for reading this. I have to go. I’m working on editing the text for our next Flight and the Arts exhibition—Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars. It opens in January.
David Romanowski is the writer-editor in the Exhibits Department of the National Air and Space Museum.