The Smithsonian has announced plans to revitalize the National Air and Space Museum and transform its exhibitions. The project, which will take approximately seven years, will be done on a phased sequencing schedule that will keep many exhibitions open during the construction process. The building will undergo complete refacing of the exterior cladding, replacement of outdated mechanical systems and other repairs and improvements. The visitor experience will also change when all of the museum’s 23 galleries and presentation spaces are updated or completely redone.
Dividing the work into two separate stages beginning in summer 2018, with part of the building operational at all times, will allow the museum to remain open to the millions of people who visit every year. More than 350 million people have visited the landmark museum since it opened July 1, 1976.
Construction will begin on the west side of the museum, which houses nine exhibitions, some of which have not significantly changed since the building’s opening 41 years ago. To safeguard artifacts during construction, most will be moved to a new state-of-the-art collections storage facility currently under construction near the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. After the artifacts are returned to the museum on the National Mall when construction ends, the facility will be used to store other museum collection items not currently on display.
The exhibition plan will use creative and dynamic techniques to engage visitors while they are at the museum and after they leave. Many exhibitions will be refreshed but retain current themes, and others will be completely replaced. The exhibitions throughout the museum will be grouped by theme to allow for easier way finding and a better visitor experience.
“The icons people associate with the National Air and Space Museum are as inspiring today as they were when they made history,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator. “But through stimulating new exhibition techniques and innovative digital engagement, we will tell exciting and relevant stories in ways that resonate with our modern communication-savvy world that can be readily shared with broad audiences.”
When the new exhibitions begin to open in 2021, visitors will see favorite artifacts presented in new settings, such as the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which will be housed in a custom-designed, climate-controlled case as the centerpiece of the “Destination Moon” exhibition. Recently captured 3-D digital photography of calculations and notes made by the crew inside Columbia will be shown alongside the artifact, revealing interior components of the module that would otherwise remain hidden to the public.
Other exhibitions will feature newly acquired pieces, such as the Nemesis NXT Air Racer, the first kit-built airplane to fly faster than 400 mph, which will be displayed in an exhibition called “Nation of Speed.”
Each of the exhibitions will incorporate presentation spaces that will allow experts and visitors to engage with the content through demonstrations and discussions, all shared through online webcasts. Instead of simply presenting information to visitors, the exhibitions will provide ways of engaging people through hands-on experiences. In “Exploring the Planets,” for example, visitors will tour the solar system and learn what it would be like to walk on another world through an immersive, interactive experience. To learn more about the project, visit airandspace.si.edu/reimagine.
The Smithsonian has requested funds in its 2018 federal budget to begin the exterior and building infrastructure work. In subsequent years, additional amounts will be requested. The Smithsonian estimates the total cost of the building revitalization will be about $650 million. In addition, the museum will raise the $250 million it needs for new exhibitions through private sources.
The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Both facilities are open daily from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free, but there is a $15 fee for parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center.