Saturday, September 10, 2011

Space museum

While I've always loved the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC, I've never liked its name. In particular, the word "museum" in its title seemed inappropriate. It gives the impression of a dank building where bones of creatures, long dead, gather dust. Instead, I think of the Smithsonian as a glass aviary on the green National Mall where steel birds who once danced with stars have perched, perhaps temporarily, so that we can look at their gleaming edges.

My romantic view of the Smithsonian contrasts strongly with the reality of an aerospace industry whose best days seem behind it. The Smithsonian's focus seems less on the future of flight and more on the creation of an experience that is best described as a "scientific amusement park". IMAX theaters abound, and much effort is spent on acquiring and displaying weird-looking aircraft, with the goal of inducing a brainless "woah". When the Smithsonian turns 35 this year, it will seem more a museum for artifacts than an avante-garde hangar in which to contemplate our cosmic destiny.

Soon, the Smithsonian will be the home of Discovery, NASA's former flagship and the oldest surviving space shuttle. She will join the Bell X-1, the Eagle lunar module, the SR-71 Blackbird and the Enola Gay as monuments to the golden age of aerospace, when the United States held total dominance in the sky. When this happens, the Smithsonian will, perhaps, become the perfect place to meditate on our transition to what Fareed Zakaria calls the post-american world.

Maybe it is time that I let go of my opposition to the word "museum" in the title of the Smithsonian.

During my last visit to the center, in July, the retirement of the shuttles was imminent and these sorts of thoughts swirled in my head. I looked at the displays with a feeling that I was looking at history, at aircraft archeology perhaps, rather than technology. Such emotions weighed heavily in me, till I came across a gallery called How Things Fly. The space was a collection of about 25 or so interactive displays and was swarming with loads of excited children.

The different displays were not just for kids: I really enjoyed them too. Most of the interactive exhibits were on different aspects of flight, and each hammered home the concept of airfoil. There was a thin plastic disk that hovered magically, a beach ball that levitated over a glorified hair dryer and all kinds of wind tunnels. I've uploaded a video of one of the interactive displays below. I believe that as long as the Smithsonian can keep putting up exhibitions that bring out in everyone - children and adults alike - an excitement in flying, then in some sense the building is not a catacomb of mechanical dinosaurs and is, instead, alive and breathing. Hopefully, that means I can still get away with not calling it a "museum".

Airfoil with smoke streams:

1 comment:

Anjali said...

I love "where steel birds who once danced with stars have perched, perhaps temporarily, so that we can look at their gleaming edges". How's "space exploratorium"?