Location, Location: How the Museum of Flight and Washington State Affect Each Other

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Elisabeth Warsinske


Location, Location, Location:

How the Museum of Flight and Washington State Affect Each Other

The Museum of Flight has made many right choices; it has a successful reputation and is an attraction for the aviation industry and the city of Seattle. But despite the museum’s good fortune, there remain factors such as attendance and international popularity that are difficult to control. No matter what the Museum of Flight did to renovate itself, locale was the one factor that it could not change and because of this, it suffered a setback. There are advantages and disadvantages to the location of a museum, and the Museum of Flight has dealt with the issues and celebrated the history that comes with residing in Washington State.

It all began with a group of aviation devotees who realized that the story of flight was being lost with the destruction of its artifacts. They came together in 1964 to create the Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical (PNAH) Foundation and preserve the history of flight while educating the public about the significance of aviation. The Foundation wanted to reach a larger audience, so in 1965 they displayed their collected objects and artifacts at the Seattle Center; that was the beginning of the Museum of Flight ("About the Museum and The History of Aviation" 2011) 1.

In 1975, the Port of Seattle (the authority which manages international trade and travel) leased a plot of land to the PNAH Foundation for a museum. The Boeing Red Barn “the birthplace of Boeing”, was restored and moved from the Duwamish Waterway to Seattle where it became the first building to house the Museum of Flight in 1983. Additional buildings joining the museum would be the Great Gallery, the Library and Archives building, and finally the J. Elroy McCaw Personal Courage Wing and Airpark in 2004.

The Great Gallery was a $20 million dollar asset for the museum when it joined the Red Barn in 1987. It held thirty airplanes, half of which would be hanging in the air, surrounded by a glass ceiling and windows. It was the addition of this gallery that made the Museum of Flight a recognized attraction for Seattle (Lane 1985) 2.

Ten years later, another attraction for the Museum of Flight was unveiled. In 1997, the air traffic control tower on Boeing Field was added. In the tower, patrons can listen to live communication broadcasted between the Boeing tower and pilots, helping them to navigate the skies. From the spacious window in the tower, patrons have a view of the King County International Airport and see the airplanes that are taking off and landing (Griffin 1997)3.

In August of 2003, the Museum of Flight debuted its 5,000 square foot exhibit, The Birth of Aviation. The exhibition, which included artifacts, photographs and replicas of the Wright brothers was unveiled just in time for the museum’s celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the brother’s first flight (Lamm 2003)4.

One of the most exciting prospects for the Museum of Flight was the opportunity to house and display one of NASA’s retiring space shuttles. In the early spring of 2011, NASA offered its retiring space shuttles, Discovery, Endeavour, Enterprise and Atlantis, to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in Manhattan, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the California Science Center in Los Angeles, the Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and last but not least, the Museum of Flight in Seattle (Boyle 4/12/2011)5. All of the museums in the running made different bids for the coveted space shuttles from collecting names on a petition to hiring a marketing firm and setting up a website. The Museum of Flight’s bid was building a 15,500 square foot Space Gallery ("Museum of Flight's New Space Gallery to Be Named in Honor of Charles Simonyi") 6.

A second bid was made for the space shuttles by U.S. Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with nine U.S. representatives who wrote a letter to the Boeing administrator, Charles Bolden, in April 2011, showing their support for the Museum of Flight to receive one of the space shuttles. They wrote, “The Museum of Flight is truly first in class in reputation and museum leadership, and has an unwavering dedication to its educational mission. The facility has been an outstanding curator to some of our nation's most significant aerospace accomplishments.” The senators and representatives kept their message clear throughout the letter--that the Museum of Flight was the best home for a retired space shuttle ("Washington State Delegation Urges NASA Administrator to Select The Museum of Flight for Retired Space Shuttle" 04/06/2011) 7.

Though it put up a good fight, the Museum of Flight lost out on a space shuttle. Discovery went to Washington D.C., Endeavour ended up in Los Angeles, Enterprise traveled to New York and Atlantis was received by Florida (Holtz 2011) 8. The deciding factor for NASA about who would receive the shuttles was international visitors. The 2007 government statistics were used to make this evaluation. The fact is that Washington does not have as many global tourists as Los Angeles or Florida nor does the Museum of Flight have high enough attendance numbers. In 2007, Washington State had 406,000 international tourists in comparison to the millions that L.A. and New York attracted. The lower population of Washington State also contributed to this loss. In this way, Washington has held the Museum of Flight back, not only from receiving a space shuttle but also from further global popularity (Bishop 08/27/2011) 9.

Tourism in Washington has fluctuated during the state’s history. The Gold Rush of 1897 brought 100,000 gold explorers to Seattle (Lange) 10. The 1962 World Fair at the Seattle Center attracted 10 million visitors between April and October (Lange) 11. Washington is a popular state in the U.S. but it cannot compete with the coastal states in popularity or tourism. There are a number of contributing factors for occurrence.

In 2011, Washington State became the only state to close its tourism office due to a lack of state funding to promote travel. The decision to do so was a short-term solution for providing funding for the public education system. Another factor that make drawing tourists difficult for Washington is that international tourists don’t know the geography of the Northwest as well as the rest of the United States. Additionally, the name Washington is easily confused with Washington D.C., famously known for the White House, and home of the President. Had Washington State been called Columbia (after the Columbia River), this issue might have been avoided (Yardley 2011) 12.

On the other hand, Washington provides the Museum of Flight something that no other aviation museum has. It is in this state that the beginning of the world’s leading aerospace corporation and the largest producer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft began. The Boeing Company originated with William E. Boeing in 1916 in a red barn in Washington State. It was here that William Boeing made the first test flight of the first Boeing airplane, the Bluebill B&W Model 1. That was the beginning of what would become the largest aerospace company in the world ("William E. Boeing") 13.

Despite the disappointment about the loss of the space shuttle, the Space Gallery wasn’t a total loss because the Museum of Flight received a full-fuselage space shuttle trainer from NASA. This trainer is a one-of-a kind shuttle orbiter without wings that was built in 1970 at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery is attached to the museum by a sky bridge. This addition brought the Museum of Flight to a new level, both architecturally and as a state attraction. The gallery opened before the trainer arrived with an exhibit about the future of human spaceflight. When the full fuselage trainer arrives, a permanent exhibition, titled Spaceflight Academy will take its place. Spaceflight Academy will make its debut in June 2012 and will show how astronauts train for space missions and will be accompanied by the interactive space trainer.

Whether or not a museum’s content relates to the state or city in which it resides, it is still connected to its place of origin. A museums inevitably changes the history of its city. Without the Museum of Flight, the birthplace of Boeing (an integral part of Seattle’s history) would have been destroyed, but the museum preserved the Red Barn and brought it back to life. The Museum of Flight could be in a more popular city, but then it wouldn’t have the history of Washington State. Not only is the museum in the same state as Boeing headquarters, but it also has 250 local docents who lend their personal history about life and flight each and every day to patrons of the museum.

In the end, museums should not base their worth on popularity or international visitors. A museum ought to take pride in the fact that it is an institution that preserves culture and its city’s history and in return, its city provides it a community. The Museum of Flight has grown from a group of aviation enthusiasts in a small barn to a vital piece in the history of aerospace, the history of museums and the history of Washington State. The Museum of Flight and Washington State have worked together, using their resources to make each other more cultured and beloved.

1The Museum of Flight, "About the Museum and The History of Aviation." Last modified 2011. Accessed February 23, 2012. http://www.museumofflight.org/about-us.

Elisabeth Warsinske

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