I suspect that most households have what my parents used to call our “junk drawer,” a place for storing miscellaneous small stuff. Ours was in a handy location, the kitchen. It held scissors, rubber bands, toothpicks, matches, various keys, pins and pens, and spare parts for this and that. Some of the things we used often; most were just there in case a need ever arose.
The National Air and Space Museum Archives has such a “drawer”—a whole lot of them, actually—but I wouldn’t consider their contents junk. Officially called the Technical Files, they are located next to the Library and Archives Reading Room on the third floor of the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. A treasure trove of materials that don’t belong to specific collections, they serve as a general reference resource for researchers and staff.
When I began researching Hawaii by Air, the temporary exhibition now on view at the Museum, I spent many days rummaging through the Tech Files looking for anything relating to air travel to Hawaii. I wanted to create an exhibition based as much as possible on the Museum’s own collections, and those files seemed like a good place to start. What I found amazed me and helped shape Hawaii by Air.
The Tech Files consist of several moveable banks of locked file cabinets painted a lively shade of late-1970s orange. Each row contains 50 file drawers, and there 14 rows plus oversize storage. You need assistance from someone at the reference desk to access the files.
As a novice researcher, I had to learn some basic rules and procedures: no food or drink allowed in the Reading Room, use pencils only to take notes (erasable if you accidentally leave a mark on archival material), wear cotton gloves when handling photographs. To prevent misfiling, remove only one folder at a time for examination in the Reading Room, mark its location with a large cardboard placeholder, and note on the placeholder your name, the date, and the folder ID number. A misfiled folder is a lost and useless folder.
The files are organized by subject. A large section is devoted to aircraft and is arranged by manufacturer and then by aircraft type. The aircraft files contain a mind-boggling assortment of company documents, ephemera, and photos relating to thousands of aircraft. When I needed an interior view of a Sikorsky S-38 flying boat from the 1920s, I found it here in a technical booklet on the aircraft published by Sikorsky. As a bonus, it included seating diagrams that designer Jennifer Carlton used as a background graphic. In a folder on the Martin M-130 Clipper, I found a copy of The Bride on the Philippine Clipper, a personal account by Helen Hagerman about her transpacific flight in 1937, which Jennifer and I ended up highlighting in Hawaii by Air.
The extensive biographies files contain materials relating to thousands of people, both the famous and the obscure. In a folder on Cmdr. John Rodgers, I found newspaper clippings from 1925 on the first attempt to fly to Hawaii. These helped us tell the story of the Navy’s search for Rodgers’ missing seaplane and his ordeal’s happy ending in Hawaii. I also found a collection of newspaper articles on Clarence Walker, a lesser known early aviator who earned the dubious distinction of being the first to crash a plane in Hawaii. We included his story as well.
The Tech Files also contain drawers on myriad other subjects: propulsion; equipment; organizations; space history; arts, literature and entertainment; events, air expositions, meets, races, and shows . . . the list goes on. Serendipity rewarded me in an events file where I discovered a copy of the official program for the “Dole Trans-Pacific Flight”—the infamous Dole Derby of 1927, which cost a dozen flyers their lives. We reproduced the program’s front and back covers in the exhibition.
But the drawers I spent the most time poring through were the airlines files, part of the vast air transport section. Organized by airline, these files hold a wondrous assortment of stuff: route maps and timetables, advertisements and press releases, news articles and airline magazines, prints and photographs, postcards and other memorabilia, and more. I looked through files for U.S. airlines from Aloha to United that had flown to or among the Hawaiian Islands. From them I obtained many of the images that appear in the post–World War II sections of Hawaii by Air.
I found far more materials than I could include in the exhibition. Many provided quotations that appear on the graphic panels or information that made its way into the exhibition text. I scanned or photographed countless items for future reference and carefully documented where I found them. Later, we ordered from the Archives high-resolution scans of the few select items we chose to reproduce on the exhibition’s graphic panels. Because of the light levels in the exhibit gallery and other factors, we could not display the originals. I’ve included here a few things that didn’t make it into the exhibition (and that I can share beyond the Archives Reading Room).
I drew from many other Archives resources as well—its vast digital image collections searchable in the Reading Room, and its photo, memorabilia, ephemera, and film collections at the Archives’ main facility located at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Over two-thirds of the images in Hawaii by Air were drawn from the Museum’s Archives. So anyhow, thanks for reading; I have to go. I’m looking for a new project that will send me on another exploratory adventure in the National Air and Space Museum Archives.