Aviation Insider: Aviation Museums at the Crossroads

Dec 28, 2012 No Comments by

Walter Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, explains the business from the inside out

 By Barrett Tillman

Humans are collectors. We keep items that are important to us and preserve them for future memory—our own and memories of those yet unborn. Therefore, museums represent the institutional memory of nations and cultures, a habit dating at least from the Renaissance.

Aviation, of course, is much newer than nearly all recorded history—a mere 110 years downwind from Kitty Hawk. But Flight Journal enjoys a long relationship with one of the world’s leading aero museologists so we rang up Colonel Walt Boyne for his thoughts on the subject.

Walt says, “When I made colonel in 1971, I ran out of flying assignments, which took some of the luster off being in the Air Force.” Anticipating retirement, he wrote General Mike Collins, first director of the nascent National Air and Space Museum, offering to help. But the response, he says, was, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” However, a year later, he heard back with an offer to join as curator of air transportation.

In 1974, Walt joined NASM to write the script for the air transport hall. The museum opened two years later, and Walt was appointed acting NASM director in 1981. During his full term from 1983-1986 he founded Air & Space Magazine and signed the agreement with the FAA for the land at Dulles that became the Udvar-Hazy facility.

Walt approached aviation museums with the perspective of an Airplane Guy and a Museum Guy. He recalled the long-ago origins of the Air Force Museum near Dayton: “A bunch of interesting airplanes on the lot beside the road,” and knew that acquisition was Job One, for the finest exhibit plans will go nowhere without items to display.

When he became NASM director, Walt inherited a going concern, but he realized that new exhibits should be rotated through the downtown D.C. venue. Consequently, he was instrumental in upgrading the dilapidated Silver Hill, Maryland, storage facility, where most NASM restorations are accomplished.

 

Rivet counters, volunteers, and fundraisers

Perhaps the least-understood aspect of museum management is the people quotient. Walt insists that directors should work toward a team spirit with each segment of the staff working together. He describes the players as “rivet counters, exhibit artists, and executives/fundraisers often without an interest in aviation.” In fact, a director of one successful aero museum came from a jewelry background.

The pattern Walt sees in many museums is that the core group—usually rivet counters—provide the impetus and expertise but often get shoved aside later. The restoration staff is the basis of any aviation museum, yet nearly every museum is a business that depends on funding. Therefore, the guys with the dirty fingernails need to meld with the suits on the second (or third, or fifth) floor.

As NASM director, Walt regularly toured the building, getting to know most of the staff on sight. He believes that directors and curators should mix with the staff and the public on a regular basis, not only to avoid filtered reports, but also to get a feel for the enterprise, which can change over time. “Your docents can make or break you,” he says. “You shouldn’t take anybody for granted, but always pay attention to the docents. Their reward is psychological, not remuneration, and you can never have too many qualified volunteers.”

For groups considering establishing an aviation museum, Walt offers specific guidelines. “A museum should be an entertainment destination, not just for visitors but for evening events and corporate meetings. You need to persuade people to drive the extra miles, with an upscale restaurant and other activities. If there’s a lake nearby, advertise paddleboats for rent. If there’s hiking trails, advertise that.” In short, seek the broadest possible appeal. As Walt notes, “The men will come to your museum regardless. The trick is attracting women and children.”

One of the best ways to attract youngsters is with interactive exhibits. But not just electronic games or even flight simulators that can break down. “There’s nothing worse than a fancy exhibit with an ‘out of order’ sign on it.” Walt insists that a work-and-learn environment is optimum, teaching kids an arcane skill such as woodworking or rib stitching. He notes that in today’s worrisome world, gaining permission can be tedious. “You probably have to work with school boards and even unions, but I think it’s worthwhile. And you can get funding.” He adds that funding is the life blood of a museum but each is different, requiring a professional approach to optimize prospects for gaining sponsors.

 

Design artists

Designing museum exhibits is an art form. In fact, it’s a major academic subject in some colleges. While many visitors to aviation museums are content to see the hardware and sniff the ambience, they should be the minority share of those through the turnstile. As noted before, the broader the appeal the greater the revenue potential.

That means designing exhibits that are simultaneously informative and appealing. “It’s a very tough problem,” Walt says. “Curators, rivet counters, and masters of other levels often want to write exhibit texts for their peers. But designers are generalists who see the broad view. It’s a conflict that goes on all the time, and the executive floor can get very defensive when designers have a better solution. In almost every instance I would go with the designers’ preferences.”

There are different ways of influencing visitors’ perceptions of exhibit items. Color, lighting, and emphasis can guide viewers from one subject or one time period to another without excessive effort. Some museums are fortunate in having multiple buildings that delineate various eras. An excellent example is the Italian Air Force Museum, composed of four hangars or buildings, each representing a specific historic period.

Walt emphasizes the importance of suitable texts for each display. “Texts should walk the fine line between objectivity and appeal. Intelligent, simply written labels are essential to the huge majority of visitors, who are not enthusiasts. It helps to place a specific airplane in context with non-aviation items. For instance, a Northrop Alpha from 1931 might be displayed with a General Electric refrigerator from the same era—both were innovative in their time.”

 

To fly or not to fly

Airplanes are different than every other form of transport. Making just one trip always has the potential for destruction, unlike automobiles or ships. So there are two kinds of aviation museums: nonflying and flying. In a large sense, they represent the difference between a taxidermist shop and a zoo.

How to determine what should and should not be flown?

Obviously, NASM has no option for flying its aircraft, but some other museums do. For those based on airports, conducting “fly days” have enormous potential for public attention and attendance. There is also the potential for turning a multi-million dollar piece of history into a smoking hole in the ground.

Walt distinguishes between genuine historic aircraft and “data plate” reproductions, saying, “If you’ve built one up from plans before, it can be done again.”

He notes from experience, “Museum principals tend to be fascinated with the rarer aircraft, and those get the attention of the aficionados. I think a museum can attract the same level of public attention by flying aircraft that are not particularly rare, from Stearmans through P-51s, and obtain the same value from the public as if they were flying Fw 190Ds. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, museums should fly safe, easy to replace aircraft to attract the public.”

Eventually the question will solve itself.  Looking to the future, Walt says that as more warbirds are grounded due to operating expense or parts shortages, more will become available for museums. However, he concedes that inevitably some classics will disappear from the air.

 

More than airplanes

An aviation museum is more than hardware—it’s also artifacts from flight jackets to parachutes to logbooks. And, in some cases, it’s a library with resources for serious researchers. But an archive requires archivists, and unless they’re competent volunteers, they add to the overhead, usually with little potential for offsetting income.

As the author of more than 50 books, Walt is intimately familiar with the research process. “Technology advances, of course, and that means some media become outdated. Probably the best example is microfiche. How many libraries have readers for that anymore? I don’t know, but I’d guess very few.”

Recently, some of The Usual Aviation Suspects exchanged emails about what to do with their private libraries, many including rare or unique items. Walt shares the belief that the optimum solution is a central repository, funded and staffed by a sugar daddy severely interested in preserving aviation history. “Excellent quality images now are available of photos and documents,” Walt observes, “and many of us are willing to share. I’d think that Google or somesuch could make the equipment available and a handful of patrons could fund it for a few million dollars.”

Whether the envisioned archive occurs or not, the world of aviation history will always benefit from dedicated practitioners such as Walt Boyne.

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About the author

Kate Pierpont is the Deputy Managing Editor at Air Age Media. She is responsible for ensuring the high quality of copy across Air Age's six print titles as well as online and marketing efforts.
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