The Final Frontier

In Museums on June 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Time for another Smithsonian! And today we’re talking National Air and Space Musem.


I was very excited about this – I’m a huge fan of Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and I loved a recent visit to the Cold War Exhibit at RAF Cosford (I’ll get around to writing about it soon), so this is a subject I enjoy. As you can see, it looks promising from the outside with queues like those above, and the squillions of flying things hanging from the ceiling.

 As with the other Smithsonians (Smithsonia? I never know), there are some notable stars in this collection (no pun intended), namely the Wright Flyer, which sits in a kitsch exhibit themed around the home of brothers Orville and Wilbur:


Also, there’s a lot of NASA stuff (as you would imagine), including the happy-clappy return-to-earth suit, which formerly belonged to Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, many personal effects from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon (including all you’d ever need to deal with zero-gravity poop, which was WAY more than I needed to know) and this door of an Apollo Lunar Module.


As cool as it was to see this stuff, the NASM has a really tired feel to it, which is not what you want from a museum that focuses on the evolution of advanced technologies. The galleries on Early Flight were especially amateurish – there was the distinct feel of a small, local museum with a tight budget about them, which just doesn’t cut the mustard on the National Mall in Washington DC. I would say the caliber of display here lags behind all other Smithsonian Museums visited so far.

As with most Smithsonia (I like it better than -ians), the gift shop is huge and well stocked with air and space goodies, so you can feel free as a bid to fritter away money in there. However, you’re going to be facing an expensive day if you want to do everything in the museum. There’s an IMAX cinema and a Planetarium, which we had heard great things about. However, both have charged admission, and it will set you back about $20 to do both. I can’t help but feel that leaving all the tired exhibits open for free but charging for these things (especially so much for them) is rather duplicitous of the Smithsonian. Before you start, I of course know all about the whys and wherefores of charged vs. uncharged admission and the difficulties of museum funding, but to scream “We’re a free museum!” from the rooftops and then stiff people for money for about 50% of your visitor experience isn’t best practice. I felt duped, and left unsatisfied.

So, I can’t speak for the whole experience, with good reason. What is available for free is interesting, but could do with a serious update. We’re in tough times for the Museum world, and especially tough times for NASA (though not so much for airlines, apparently) so sponsorship of this museum must be thin on the ground right now. They’ll have to wait a while to update I think, but if they wait too long then the NASM risks becoming a museum-of-a-museum from the 1970s.

  1. It sounds like it hasn’t changed much since the early eighties. It was wonderful then, but the lunar landings were still very recent , so there was a thrill about seeing all the lunar modules and things and also touching the moon rock. Seems a shame they havn’t caught up.

  2. Yeah, complete lack of innovation at this one, really. It’s getting its ass kicked by places like Kennedy Space Centre and RAF Museum Cosford in the UK.

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