Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum don’t often get to see the work that goes on behind the scenes. This is especially true in terms of the labor that goes into collecting and caring for our artifacts. Many may wonder where all the air and space stuff (we call them artifacts) comes from. The answer is from a variety of places, including the United States Air Force, NASA, and the general public. These artifacts vary; some are large (aircraft and spacecraft) but many are relatively small (aircraft equipment or military or commercial airline uniforms and insignia, for example, or items of popular culture—air and space toys and games).

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.



Four toy ray guns from the Museum's space popular culture collection.

Museum stewardship demands that we manage our collections carefully. Part of our responsibility is to acquire material based on well-defined criteria and, in similar fashion, we occasionally choose to remove items from the collection (we call it deaccessioning).  To help us sort out what to collect, what to keep, and what to remove, we have a collections rationale—a document that guides these decisions. It is a category-by-category justification of our collecting practices. The collections rationale takes into account such things as an object’s historical significance, rarity, and our ability to care for it. These are updated every five years or so. Periodic reviews of the collection, using the rationale as a guide, may indicate that an object or objects no longer fits the Museum’s collecting objectives and should be deaccessioned. This is a decision that goes through a careful process of review, with the aim of finding a home for the objects at another museum. Since 2006 we have deaccessioned a number of large objects: a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress went to the Mighty 8th Museum in Savannah, Georgia; a Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress “Swoose” went to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; a Curtiss C-46F Commando went to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York; a McDonnell KDD-1 Katydid Drone went to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon; a Grumman X-29 full-scale model went to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City, New York; two 1/3-scale models of Mercury capsules went to the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and the Penn-Harris Planetarium in Mishawaka, Indiana; a Vanguard I mockup went to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. We’ve also deaccessioned a number of smaller artifacts to museums and educational institutions.

A full-scale model of the Grumman X-29 formerly on display in the Beyond the Limits gallery at the Museum in Washington, DC, now belongs to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City, New York.

Early in 2012, our Aeronautics Department and Space History Department completed their work on the Museum collections rationales, including a listing of candidate objects for deaccession. Among the candidates from the Aeronautics Department are aircraft, aircraft engines, items of award (plaques, certificates, etc.) and personal equipment (flight clothing, full and partial pressure suits, etc.). Those from the Space History Department include items of human spaceflight, rockets and missiles, guidance, navigation and control, the space sciences, and civilian applications satellites. We have now made this list of candidate deaccessions available to the museum community.  Initially, this effort will focus on working with the Mutual Concerns of Air and Space Museums, an international consortia of air and space museums, then seek to broaden outreach to the Smithsonian Affiliations program, and the American Association of Museums (AAM) communities. The list of items we plan to deaccession may be viewed on our website. Here members of the museum communities mentioned above will be able to review what we have made available and contact us to acquire these artifacts. Institutional policy in regard to deaccessioning objects from the Museum’s collection dictates that the artifacts rightfully should go to other museums and educational institutions with a similar mission and goals and not to the general public. As part of our stewardship responsibilities we must see to it that these objects end up in good hands after they leave our control. 

Related Topics Aviation Aircraft Spaceflight Behind the scenes
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