Since 1976, the National Air and Space Museum's Pioneers of Flight Gallery has housed such beloved airplanes as Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega and Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Lockheed Sirius. But after more than 30 years on display, museum staff decided in 2009 that the planes and the exhibit could use a refurbishing. A $10 million donation from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation got the work underway.
The new Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery opens tomorrow (there is an online exhibition available as well). It provides a fresh take on what curator Peter Jakab refers to as "the adolescence of aviation," the middle period in the history of flight when the early pioneers' work was "maturing and finding its way."
There were many firsts during this time: the first transcontinental flight in 1911 (Calbraith Perry Rodgers in the Wright X Vin Fiz), the first around-the-world flight in 1924 (members of the US Army in the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago) and first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 (Amelia Earhart in the Lockheed Vega). "Aviation fever," the curators say, was running rampant around the world, especially in the United States. By 1938, 25,000 people had pilot licenses compared to 1,500 people just ten years earlier.
"Every one of these objects represents compelling human stories," said Jakab at a media preview on Tuesday. "Someone designed it. Someone built it. Tested it. Flew it. Sold it. Or built a business around it. And it's at this intersection of hardware and human beings where museums matter."
During the 1920s and 30s, the public took equal interest in the planes and the pilots who flew them. Earhart especially became a popular culture icon, heading up her own clothing and luggage lines to great success, and championing women's societal advancement in several different arenas. "The first Pioneers of Flight exhibit didn't always talk about the pilots," says curator Dorothy Cochrane. "The new exhibit really allows us to flesh out our mission as a museum."
The Pioneers of Flight gallery is divided thematically, with sections on military and civil aviation, African American involvement in flight and the beginnings of rocketry. In addition to the large planes, curators have used personal objects to tell the story of the aviators and their careers. Among these artifacts are a pair of snowshoes that Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh packed for their 1933 flight over the Arctic to scout possible commercial routes for Pan Am that are still in use today. (Look for an article in Smithsonian magazine's January issue).
One of Cochrane's favorite objects is Amelia Earhart's carved wood trophy case, which husband George Putnam had had hand crafted to represent three of the pilot's most groundbreaking missions. In the early years of flight, both military and civil aviation centered principally around trophies, which were awarded for "firsts" in aviation and high-speed races along a designated course. There was even a Pulitzer prize for aviation, which promoted high-speed flight.
The new exhibit also incorporates some of the technological advancements made in the past 30 years while the planes were on view (i.e. computers). One digital interactive lets visitors choose what equipment to bring with the Lindberghs on their flight to the Arctic. A portion of the Hilton Foundation's donation has also gone to funding an early childhood education program in the gallery, where children can put on a puppet show, play with pilot dolls and more.
The exhibit, says Jakab, tells a universal tale. "To know the stories of the men and women who designed, built and flew these machines is to know in some measure, the history of us as a people, and in turn we begin to know ourselves."