On September 17th, Museum staff participated in the international Ask a Curator Day on Twitter. People asked questions on topics ranging from how we select exhibitions to the most difficult object or display to maintain to the most unusual object in our collections. Here is a selection of those questions and answers.
Peter Jakab, chief curator: There are a variety of factors that govern the exhibition program. A major one is replacing older exhibitions that may be out of date in terms of content or exhibit technology, or simply showing wear and tear. With eight million visitors a year coming through the Museum, our galleries can get worn pretty quickly. We build in a maintenance budget for each new exhibition, but still, over time, things get to the point where they need replacing just because they are worn out. Now, we may replace an exhibition with the same subject matter, just with a new interpretation, new artifacts, and new exhibit techniques and technology. An example like that we are working on is our Apollo gallery. The current exhibits dates from 1976. As the story of the Moon landings is central to our collection and mission, we want to do a new Apollo exhibition which takes advantage of the most recent scholarship and incorporates modern exhibition design approaches and technology. Another example like that was our new commercial aviation gallery that we renovated in 2007. Or, we might take an old exhibition and do something entirely new. If staff members have an idea for a new gallery on an entirely new subject that we want to pursue, then we will typically assess the current galleries and decide which one makes the most sense to replace based on the factors I mentioned above. Sometime we do a new gallery in observance of an important anniversary, such as our Wright brothers exhibition in 2003, the centennial of the Wrights’ first flight. Again, we’ll assess what we have and decide which gallery to use. When we have to take out an old subject for a new one, it is always a difficult decision. There are always more stories to tell than gallery space available, but new exhibitions are critical to keeping the museum experience fresh for visitors and to keeping the museum relevant.
Jeannie Whited, museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, I would say that something like the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny (which has very fragile fabric, and is light-sensitive) or the space shuttle (which everyone assumes is sturdy, but in fact the tiles are made to resist heat, not touch) are very difficult artifacts to maintain on display. Many of the small objects are sensitive to light, and keeping the light at a level where the visitor can see well, but won't cause the object to fade or weaken is a challenge to all museums.
Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: Time and Navigation at the Museum in Washington, DC. Developing it was a nine-year process start to finish. We took an abstract idea with almost no existing comprehensive interpretation and crafted an engaging narrative.
Priscilla Strain, program manager, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: My favorite exhibit is the lunar touchrock in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. To be able to touch a piece of another world—amazing!
Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: It depends on who you ask. Some people have suggested that all the artifacts left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts should be in our collection, primarily to protect them from people who might go up there and try to bring them back to Earth.
Anthony Wallace, supervisory museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: The RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint, which is an electronic reconnaissance aircraft used by the USAF. Currently they are all still being used but have operated continuously in Asia for more than two decades.
Elizabeth Borja, archivist, Archives Department: As a reference archivist, I seek to preserve and provide access to historical documents, either in our collections or through recommendations to other collections.
Jeannie Whited, museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: Preserving and helping make available the wonderful stories our artifacts illustrate.
Peter Jakab, chief curator: The first aeronautical objects the Smithsonian received were a set of Chinese kites that were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. However, the object that carries catalogue number 1 is a John Stringfellow steam engine that dates from 1868. The reason the kites don’t carry number 1 is because they were transferred to the Museum from another part of the Smithsonian at a later date and cataloged then.
Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: The “dog doo” transmitter. Disguised as what it sounds like, it relayed vibrations detected along the Ho Chi Minh Trail so that aircraft could be directed for strikes. You can see it on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in the Korea and Vietnam exhibit station.
Cathy Lewis, curator, Space History Department: We can’t keep them from degrading, but through the work of conservator Lisa Young, we have learned how to slow the natural degradation of synthetic materials by keeping them out of the light at a moderately low, stable temperature with relative humidity of 30%.
Michael Neufeld, curator, Space History Department: I would like to know more about the Nazi V-1 and V-2 missiles hanging in Space Race. Both were put up in 1975/76 for the opening of the museum and given what a rush that was, no documentation was made about what is under the paint we applied or inside the missiles.
Dorothy Cochrane, curator, Aeronautics Department: I have a signed painting of Betty Skelton’s Pitts S-1C Little Stinker but don’t know the artist. Has anyone heard of “Red” or “Rod Satton?”
Russ Lee, curator, Aeronautics Department: Bowlus BA-100 Baby Albatross sailplane. Did first owner U. S. Navy Lt. Horace Tennes really bring it aboard a U. S. aircraft carrier and take it with him to Hawaii?
Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: This compass. It may be from the first non-stop transatlantic flight, but I don’t have enough evidence to state that definitively.
Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: I wish I knew more about some of the airplanes that are on display. Some of them look very cool, but there is only so much time to learn everything.
Anthony Wallace, supervisory museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: Almost all of my work is behind the scenes. The public only sees the end result of one portion of the Collections Management side of the museum.
Roger Connor, Museum Specialist, Aeronautics Department: Some of our most significant work remains behind the scenes in papers we present at academic and industry conferences. We try to work some of that material into exhibitions, public presentations and publications, but sometimes the most interesting things don’t always make it out.
Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: There is a LOT that happens behind the scenes. Most people don't even know we do research here. I also do work in Hawaii and Australia. Thank you for asking great questions and don't forget that you can ask us any day!