Nearly four years after the start of a historic transformation process, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum reopened for visitors in October 2022. These renovations are part of a seven-year, multi-phase plan by the museum to completely reimagine all 23 exhibits.
“The scope of revitalizing the building includes replacing and upgrading the building structure. Those building systems were from the original opening in 1976 and were at their lifespan,” Kara Katsarelis, project liaison at the National Air and Space Museum, wrote in an email to The Hoya.
On Oct. 14, eight new exhibits opened to the public: “America by Air,” “The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age,” “Nation of Speed,” “Thomas W. Haas We All Fly,” “One World Connected, Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery,” “Destination Moon” and “Early Flight.”
Tyler Clough (MSB ’24), who has visited the museum since the first renovations were completed, wrote in an interview to The Hoya that the new exhibits mainly focus on a few themes.
“It’s very centered around three big things — commercial aviation, space exploration, and early flight and how it works,” Clough told The Hoya.
Marc Sklar, the museum’s director of communications, said that Destination Moon was the exhibit that had undergone one of the biggest changes.
“Destination Moon was changed a lot in terms of how we tell that story. Because again, I think when it opened, it was current events. And so to make it understandable, we present a lot of historical context in there,” Sklar told The Hoya. “We’ve also added a lot of stories about all the people because 400,000 people were involved in the Apollo program.”
Katsarelis shared her favorite features of this exhibit as well.
“Destination Moon is my personal favorite! It tells the story of the race to the moon chronologically from east to west in the exhibition and includes an incredible collection and display. It also has Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit and the Apollo 11 command module displayed together!” Katsarelis told The Hoya.
Along with updating existing exhibits, curators have added several new galleries to the museum, such as “Nation of Speed.” This exhibit is a collaboration between the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History, and it focuses on how the pursuit of speed — be it in air, land, sea or space — has impacted American culture. Highlights in “Nation of Speed” include the Harley-Davidson XR-750 Motorcycle and Turner RT-14 Meteor Air Racer, along with an interactive Evel Knievel pinball machine.
Another new exhibit now open is “One World Connected.” This exhibit focuses on how modern technology has facilitated communication and connection across the world in our everyday lives. Alongside satellites hung from the ceiling and an interactive replica of the ISS Cupola, the biggest attraction of this exhibit is a large interactive model of the Earth. Users can choose to map satellite patterns, communication signals and more across the globe with Connected Planet.
Within the next two years, the Air and Space Museum plans to open the East Wing, which will boast 15 more exhibits. One in particular, the “Innovation Gallery,” lets visitors stay up to date on the most recent advancements in air and space research. Sklar explains that every five to ten years, this gallery will update with the latest breakthroughs using technology that allows the gallery to regularly change.
Coming up in 2026, the museum plans to launch the Bezos Learning Center. This 50,000-square-foot addition to the museum was created as a result of Jeff Bezos’ $200 million donation to the Air and Space Museum, the most significant donation since its founding.
While the museum has introduced new exhibits, the renovation has also facilitated an introduction of new stories and perspectives shared with visitors. According to Sklar, about 40% of the museum’s artifacts after the reopening are ones that visitors have not seen before. There is a much greater emphasis on diversity within advances in air and space throughout history. One module within the Early Flight exhibit detailed the story of Harriet Quimby, the first female American pilot. This activity allowed visitors to learn about her history and hardships that she faced as a woman pilot in the early 1900s.
Planning the museum’s renovations included considerations of accessibility, according to Sklar.
“In a lot of displays, we have tactile models for people that are sight impaired,” Sklar explained. The museum’s rendering of the ISS Cupola also is mounted low to ensure visitors in wheelchairs will still be able to experience the model.
“We want to make sure that it’s representational of all the people that were involved,” Sklar said. “So that everybody who comes into the museum can see themselves in the stories.”
Leave a Reply