The Collection

What's in a "Collection"?
We collect objects of particular significance to the history of aviation and spaceflight. The collection, preservation, and interpretation of these objects is one of the primary ways we achieve our mission to "increase and diffuse knowledge."

To help you explore our collection, it's important to understand what the word "collection" can mean, depending on the context. The Museum's collection generally refers to everything the Museum holds in trust, including objects, artwork, archival photographs, documents, and more. A collection of objects can refer to a small subset of objects within the entire collection, typically organized by a topic, a program, or where the collection originated. For instance, the Carl H. Claudy collection refers to a set of photographs taken by Claudy in the early 1900s that covered early flights for the U.S. Army, including that of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer.

Who Works with Collections?
Curators are staff within the Museum who are responsible for collecting, studying, and interpreting the objects and records in our overall collection. Archives staff are responsible for the care of archival collections (photographs, documents, etc.) and Collections staff are responsible for the care, movement, preservation, and restoration of objects. All of these staff do original research in the course of carrying out their work with the collection. There are plenty of areas of overlap and everyone works together.

Exploring and Learning from Our Collection
There are many ways to make use of the collections of the National Air and Space Museum — from exploring on your own by using the multimedia gallery to reviewing our online exhibitions, which put our collections into context. We encourage you to dig in and discover some amazing information.

Primary Sources
Historians work with primary sources, the tangible evidence from the past. Primary sources are a first-hand, original account, record, or evidence about a person, place, object, or event. Oral histories, objects, photographs, and documents such as newspapers, ledgers, census records, diaries, journals, and inventories are primary sources. An excellent reference guide to working with primary sources is available from the National Museum of American History.

How Do We Decide What to Collect?
We use several criteria when determining whether items should be acquired, including:

  1. The object is consistent with the Museum's goals.
  2. It is appropriate for exhibition purposes and proves useful as an educational tool within an exhibit.
  3. The object was associated with a notable, historical event related to aviation and/or spaceflight or depicts such an event.
  4. The object was owned by, associated with or created by a notable person associated with the history/field of aviation and/or spaceflight.
  5. The object has significant intrinsic value because it is the best of its type or one of a kind.
  6. The object will contribute to research and scholarship in disciplines related to the history of aviation and/or spaceflight.
  7. The object represents a technological innovation or invention associated with the history of aviation and/or spaceflight.