WASHINGTON — Courtesy of Boeing, some key artifacts of aviation and space history will be getting an updated display for the 21st century, with the Apollo moon landing as the centerpiece.
For the first time since its 1976 opening, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum plans to overhaul its central exhibition showing the milestones of flight. The extensive renovation announced Thursday will be carried out over the next two years with portions of the exhibit closing temporarily over time, said Museum Director J.R. “Jack” Dailey.
The project will be paid for by the largest corporate donation in the Smithsonian’s history. On Thursday, Boeing announced a $30 million gift to the museum for its exhibits and education programs. The central gallery will be renamed the “Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.” Boeing has donated nearly $60 million to the museum throughout its history, the company said.
Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” aircraft from the first trans-Atlantic flight, John Glenn’s Mercury capsule from his first Earth orbit and an Apollo Lunar Module recalling America’s first moon landing will be among the key pieces to be featured. Such artifacts have made the Air and Space Museum the nation’s most-visited museum, drawing 7 million to 8 million visitors each year.
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The exhibition overhaul also marks the start of a renovation of the entire building through 2020, which will require federal funding. Plans call for adding an observatory on the roof.
The current “Milestones of Flight” gallery includes a somewhat random mix of technical marvels, including Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules spread across the floor, the first plane to break the sound barrier and other aircraft hanging above. The exhibit descriptions have not been notably updated since President Ford opened the museum in 1976, said chief curator Peter Jakab.
For the first time, the museum will add science fiction to the “Milestones of Flight” exhibit with a model of starship Enterprise from “Star Trek.” In the 1970s, a “Star Trek” actress made TV ads to help NASA recruit a diverse corps of new astronauts, connecting fiction with reality in the Space Age.
A new-media wall, digital screens and content for mobile devices will add more layers to the visitor experience, Dailey said. “We’re trying to figure out what the museum needs to do to stay in touch,” Dailey said. “We want to inspire people of all ages to want to know more and to do more.”
Boeing’s $30 million gift is not a record for a museum. In 2011, billionaire Jorge Pérez donated $40 million to the Miami Art Museum, which renamed itself after him.
Other recent big-ticket gifts include Oprah Winfrey’s $12 million donation to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, expected to open in late 2015.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.