From Collecting to Curating

Posted on Mon, September 14, 2009

The Museum-going public doesn’t often get the opportunity to observe the work that goes on behind the scenes in a museum. The National Air and Space Museum’s poster collection is a case in point. The items in this collection, which range from notices for early aviation exhibitions to commercial airline advertising, were collected over many years. It is only recently, however, that the posters have been curated; i.e., cared for as a collection. 

In the early 1990s, Aeronautics Division curator Joanne Gernstein (now London) began to take an active interest in the poster collection. She consulted with a paper conservator at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, and carried out the necessary preservation measures. She sought out suitable storage at the Paul E.Garber facility. She also had the collection photographed, with an eye toward eventual display online, but also to provide reference images for the collections database. She curated an exhibition, titled Fly Now! Aviation Posters from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, that traveled around the country. She also wrote a companion book, Fly Now! Aviation Posters from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which was published by the National Geographic Society in 2007.

Image of TWA Trans World Airlines

Fly The Finest Fly TWA Trans World Airlines

After Joanne left the National Air and Space Museum in 2008, I took over the collection. Working with Collections Processing Unit (CPU) staff, volunteers and interns, I have attempted to continue Joanne’s pioneering efforts. A longtime Museum volunteer, Ted Hamady, has been working on a subject category reclassification, which should make searching the collection easier. Meanwhile, CPU staff members Carl Bobrow and Samantha Snell have received substantial grants to rationalize the collection, provide better storage and housing for it, and prepare it for its eventual move to new collections care facilities in Phase Two of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. In the most recent behind-the scenes effort, CPU summer interns Katy Osterwald, Hannah Soh, Amelia Kile, Allison Smith, Jeff Nagel, Mark Leadenham, Rachel Goddard, and Carolyn Metcalf worked on a variety of tasks geared toward bring this collection to the public. The result: 600+ posters are now available for public access on the National Air and Space Museum website. Eventually, we hope to place the entire collection of some 1300+ posters online.