Strong direction is needed to return the National Air and Space Museum to its originally mandated course.
As we prepare to send this issue of Aviation History to press, we note with great pleasure the appointment of Donald D. Engen, U.S. Navy vice admiral (ret.), former FAA administrator, holder of the Dewitt Ramsey Chair for Naval Aviation History, and original member of Aviation History’s Editorial Advisory Board, as the new director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C. Aviation History, like many others concerned with preserving our aviation heritage, has a “shopping list” for the new director. Our basic agenda is simple–steer the museum back on course and keep it there. That course was quite simply stated when Congress originally mandated the museum to “memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight” and to “collect, preserve and display” the equipment that made it possible.
Here, then, are some specific suggestions to begin the process of bringing a national treasure back to what it began as–a sparkling showcase of our national accomplishments in air and space:
Re-establish a middle-management staff that is qualified and will work together, dedicated to the common goal of the museum’s original purpose.
Dispense with peripheral nonaviation programs that distract the museum’s staff from its primary focus on authentic aviation objects and their care, on historical background documentation, and on the artifacts that make the exhibits credible. While you are at it, reapportion the work force that deals, hands-on and fingernails-dirty, with the actual restoration of aircraft and other artifacts.
While we are “housecleaning” in terms of programs and personnel, let’s also deal with that aspect literally–spiff up the place and energize the staff.
Protect the national aviation collection by keeping and adding, not divesting, artifacts. To collect means to acquire, not divest. Take a good look at the aircraft loan program. Sometimes aircraft that cannot be restored in-house because of the NASM’s limited personnel are loaned to other museums that restore them and are allowed to display them. It is fair to allow these museums to display such artifacts for specified periods, but this should not turn into permanent loans or giveaways. Review also the amount of time that NASM personnel spend disassembling, transporting and setting up aircraft loaned to other museums.
The problem of too little space was supposed to have been solved by the proposed museum annex at Washington Dulles International Airport. Fourteen years have been spent planning it, with no actual construction in the offing. An organized, continuous lobbying effort is needed to get Congress to authorize the funds needed to bring closer to reality the dream of displaying the entire NASM collection. A museum addition is needed now, not at some appropriate date down the road such as the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in December 2003.
World War II aviation veterans have waited patiently for more of the airplanes from that conflict to be displayed. That generation’s numbers are already dwindling; the display of the aircraft with which they preserved our way of life should be a priority not only for the veterans but also for the benefit of younger generations of Americans.
Follow-on military displays should include the major conflicts subsequent to World War II, each of which has spurred progress in aeronautical technology. And remember to balance the displays with appropriate representation of the many and varied contributions of civil aviation to the technological advancement of aviation.
With the appointment of Admiral Engen as director, we’ll soon see the NASM begin to “straighten up and fly right,” as straying aviators have been admonished throughout aviation history.
Cowles History Group TV Special
In the first such production of its kind, Cowles History Group (publisher of Aviation History) and the National Historical Society present Murder Under the Sun: The Japanese War Crimes & Trials on The History Channel this September. This one-hour documentary, created by award-winning producer Lou Reda, uses authentic footage captured by the U.S. Army in the war’s final days. There are recent interviews with prison camp survivors whose vivid memories formed the basis for sketches created by artist Richard Rockwell specifically for the program. Check your local listings for air time. If you don’t receive The History Channel, please contact your local cable operator.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History