“Best of the Decade” with Air and Space Curator Tom Crouch

United States president James Knox Polk
United States president James Knox Polk Wikimedia Commons

As a new decade approaches, we here at ATM thought it a good time to reflect on the last—asking Smithsonian curators to weigh in on their favorite exhibits and acquisitions since 2000.

On this morning, 106 years ago, powered flight was born. Wilber and Orville Wright made four successful flights above Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in the flyer they had built in their Dayton, Ohio-bicycle shop. To commemorate the anniversary of these first flights, there is an annual celebration at the site. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, has attended all but one since 1978 (he has been with NASM since 1974). He has authored four books on the Wright brothers, including a full-scale biography, and was even born in the inventors' hometown of Dayton. I caught up with Crouch before he headed south for this year's event.

What were you working on at the turn of the last decade?

In June 2000, President Clinton appointed me Chair of the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board. The board consisted of 18 members, some appointed by the White House, some by members of the House of Representatives and some by members of the Senate. It was a diverse group that included such leading aerospace personalities as Neil Armstrong and Patty Wagstaff, three-time national aerobatic champion. Our job was to work with the congressionally mandated First Flight Centennial Commission to assist in planning a broad-based national celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight of the Wright brothers. Our organization helped to plan a variety of commemorative programs, including: scholarly symposia, a pioneering website filled with information on the history of flight (which continues to operate today), a national tour of historic aircraft, major air shows and exhibitions across the country, and a host of local centennial events and projects. The celebration culminated at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on the anniversary date, December 17, 2003. That event was attended by tens or thousands of people, including President Bush (who had re-appointed me to chair the advisory board). As each and every one of those attendees can attest, it poured down rain for a good part of the day, preventing a flight by a full-scale piloted model of the original airplane long planed as the capstone of the event. Even the weather could not take the edge off that day, however. I will never forget the huge crowd, nor their enthusiastic appreciation for the Wright brothers and what they accomplished. It was certainly a highlight of my career.

What was your favorite exhibit of the last ten years? Why?

On December 15, 2003, just three days before the big celebration at Kitty Hawk, we opened the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport. The staff of the National Air and Space Museum had been working on that project for almost two decades. The new facility, so big that our Museum on the Mall would fit inside it, contained over eighty aircraft that had been in storage at the Paul E. Garber facility in Suitland. Today that number has more than doubled. It is the largest and most diverse collection of civil and military air and space craft on display anywhere in the world. How could that not be my favorite? In terms of more traditional exhibitions, I would have to put several of my colleagues efforts high on the list: Peter Jakab and designer Barbara Brennan broke new ground with “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age,” an exhibition developed while I was serving on the First Flight Centennial Advisory Board. Not only did they put the invention of the airplane in a useful technical, social and cultural context, but they placed the world’s first airplane in the center of the gallery, where visitors can see it as never before. Today, the 1903 Flyer is surrounded by exhibit materials that enable visitors to understand the details of the machine—why it is built as it is. Just brilliant! I can’t close without also noting my colleague Bob Van Der Linden’s new gallery—“America by Air.” Exploring the evolution of modern air transportation, it is a giant leap beyond what came before.

What was your favorite addition to the collection in the past decade?

Actually, my favorite acquisition is relatively recent, a large oil painting entitled, “Fledglings.” It is the sort of artistic masterwork that you don’t expect to find in an air and space museum. In early November 1908, young Rudolph Dirks took the subway from his Manhattan walk-up out to Morris Park, in the Bronx, to attend an aeronautical exhibition and meet sponsored by the Aeronautical Society of New York—the first event of its kind in the nation. Born in Germany, Dirks had immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and settled in Chicago. A talent for art took him to New York, where he found work as a newspaper cartoonist—the founder of the comic strip, “The Katzenjammer Kids.” Dirks were a serious artist, as well. He painted with Walt Kuhn, exhibited his work at the famous 1913 Armory Show, and was associated with the artists of the “Ash Can” school. The artist was one of 20,000 New Yorkers who attended the air meet that day. He was so overwhelmed by the spectacle that he raced back to his studio, removed a long linen window shade to use as a canvas and began to paint. The resulting work, measuring some six feet long, is a wonderful depiction of the first outdoor air meet and exhibition in the U.S. It is filled with color, with a long line of gliders stretching out on the ground in front of the grandstand. He filled the painting with scores of wonderful, whimsical New Yorkers getting their first look at the wonders of the age of flight. It is on par with European paintings of early aircraft by artists like Henri Rousseau, the sort of modern masterpiece that I never expected to be able to bring into the NASM art collection. Thanks to the generosity of John Dirks, the artist’s son, we will be able to share it with visitors when it goes on display in the NASM Early Flight Gallery early next year.

What has surprised you the most about how your job has changed in the last 10 years?

I rotated out of the Aeronautics chairmanship in 1999, ending a fifteen year period during which I served as an administrator/manager in both the NMAH and NASM. In truth, I was never all that happy heading divisions or departments. I am a curator/scholar at heart. What I like best is to research, write, collect and share my own passion for the early history of flight with others through publications, exhibitions, talks and other public programs. I am lucky enough to get paid for doing what I love to do!

What anniversaries, events or people are you looking forward to commemorating with an exhibit in the coming decade?

I seem to have spent a significant portion of my career celebrating anniversaries. I suppose I am something of a specialist in that regard. Before coming to the Smithsonian I managed the State of Ohio’s effort to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. Over the past decades, I have been involved in celebrating the Bicentennial of the balloon, the Bicentennial of the Treaty of Paris, the Bicentennial of the Constitution, The Centennial of Flight and the centennial of a string of Wright brother’s anniversaries, from the first practical airplane (1905) to the first flight of a passenger (1908) and the first sale of an airplane to the U.S. Army (1909). Now I am a member of a committee planning the centennial of the first soaring flight (1911). At NASM, I am working with staff members of the National Museum of the Marine Corps to prepare an art exhibition for 2012 commemorating one hundred years of USMC aviation. We are also opening discussions with colleagues from the NMAH on the possibility of exhibitions on the centennial of World War I. Finally, slowly but surely, I am developing plans for yet another future exhibition: "Faces of Flight: Portraits from the Collection of the National Air and Space Museum.” After decades of research, I am finally beginning to write a biography of the first American to fly, a Boston doctor who fought with the British during the American Revolution and ballooned across the English Channel with Jean Pierre Blanchard in 1785. He was a fascinating guy whom I have chased through archives and libraries on two continents. The tentative title is The Loyal American: A life of John Jeffries, M.D., 1745-1819.

Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming weeks.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.