A Challenging Space at Air and Space

Posted on Mon, September 21, 2015
  • by: Tim Grove

The new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall has to be one of the most challenging spaces that an exhibition team could design. It has multiple conflicting functions. As the entrance to one of the world’s busiest museums, it must accommodate millions of visitors each year. In some ways it’s a giant hotel lobby, a sorting chamber where people go in many directions and must be able to quickly figure out how to get to where they want to go. Signage must be excellent. The welcome desk, or concierge desk to keep the hotel analogy, must be easy to find with clear sight lines to indicate its location.

The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall prior to renovation in late 2014. Photo: Mark Avino | NASM2014-02477


The Hall must also serve as an introduction to the Museum. Although we don’t have an official orientation area, we must somehow convey the themes and content of the rest of the Museum in a way that will excite visitors about the prospect of exploring our more than 21 exhibition galleries. We must offer a taste of the stories that we tell and the historical people that visitors will find throughout the Museum. The Milestones of Flight Hall was designed to be awe-inspiring and must continue that tradition. It features some of the Museum’s most popular artifacts, from the Spirit of St. Louis, to the Bell X-1, and the first American jet airplane, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet. We are definitely keeping those in place and upping the power punch with the addition of the Apollo Lunar Module and an addition sure to make a certain group of visitors very happy, the Starship Enterprise studio model from the Star Trek television series (1966-1969). Any of these artifacts could easily be the star of its own exhibition. One iconic artifact that once hung front and center in the Hall, was the 1903 Wright Flyer. Museum staff moved it into a temporary exhibition, The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age, to celebrate the centennial of flight. The exhibition presents the airplane at eye level and tells the rich and fascinating story of the artifact. The exhibition proved so popular that it became a long-term exhibition.

<em> Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall</em>

<p>This shot of the <em>Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall </em>was taken immediately following the lowering of the Bell X-1 in May 2015. The Museum will complete a major renovation of its central exhibition space for the Museum's 40th anniversary in 2016.</p>

The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall during renovation in early 2015. Aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1 were lowered from the ceiling and examined and treated by the Museum’s conservation staff. Photo: Eric Long | NASM2015-02926


And thus one of the main challenges of the space: How much information can we include about each icon when each one could fill their own exhibition? As an educator, I want to engage people with each artifact’s story, to provide historical context, and to offer various interactive experiences sure to keep visitors engrossed for a long time. Yet, remember the sorting chamber? People can’t stay too long because more people will be coming and going through the doors. Finding the right amount of information is a huge challenge. There is much historic video footage to include with each artifact. We want to show each one in action. Then there is the challenge of the natural light pouring in from above. I love the natural light in the space, but it is not terribly conducive for video displays.

Not only has the Milestones of Flight Hall hosted millions of visitors every year since 1976, but it has also been the host to some amazing historic icons, including the crew of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong (left), Buzz Aldrin (center), and Michael Collins (right) gathered at the Milestones Hall in 1979 for an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the famous Moon-landing mission. Photo: Smithsonian Archives


To help layer information, the Milestones of Flight team has developed a digital wall, text panels with labels, video, and a new mobile experience. Labels will encourage visitors to make connections, to meet some of the many people in history who interacted with the artifacts, and to look closer at how the artifacts are designed. On top of all of these challenges, the space is used many times each year for special evening events. It’s transformed by night into an appealing venue for dinners and programs. It can accommodate about 400 seated guests, a stage, and room for live music. Its layout must be flexible to accommodate these functions. Meeting the demands of the space has required numerous meetings and long discussions. In the end, we hope to meet those challenges and find balance so that the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall can continue to inspire each visitor to look up and marvel at the gleaming machines that have soared into the sky.