Smithsonian extends its reach

By ANDREW P. MOISAN, UPI Correspondent   |   Nov. 24, 2003 at 9:56 AM   |   0 comments

CHANTILLY, Va., Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Not far from the runways of Dulles International Airport, where roaring jetliners come and go, a very different fleet of aircraft sits mute and unmoving. They don't wait for passengers, but for visitors to the Smithsonian Institution's newest museum, when it opens in December.

Work is nearly complete on the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a companion to its very popular facility on the National Mall. The new complex in Chantilly, Va., is much larger than the mall facility, allowing the museum to display parts of its collection too large to have been shown previously.

"It can house most of our very large artifacts -- artifacts people would never get to see downtown," said Bob van der Linden, curator of air transportation exhibits for the museum. "This will give millions of people a chance to see these artifacts."

The new complex, which is scheduled to open Dec. 15, features a massive hangar-like structure -- about 900-feet long, 248-feet wide and 103-feet tall. Admission is free. There are fees only for parking.

The $311-million facility was named for one of the Smithsonian's most generous donors, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, who in 1999 gave it $60 million. Udvar-Hazy is president and chief executive officer of International Lease Finance Corp., which leases commercial airplanes throughout the world.

Arranged inside the massive hangar are 82 aircraft and 35 large space artifacts. Eventually, there will be more than 200 aircraft and 135 large space artifacts.

"We're very lucky ... we'll get most of our collection on display," van der Linden said.

The largest craft there will be the space shuttle Enterprise, which will have its own hangar. While that location won't be open to the public until later, the shuttle will be visible as restoration work is done.

The facility on the mall, which opened in 1976, houses such notable air- and spacecraft as the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer; the "Spirit of St. Louis," which Charles A. Lindbergh flew to Paris in 1927 in the first solo trans-Atlantic flight; and the Apollo 11 command module, which took astronauts to the moon in 1969.

Although a large building, and one of the most popular museum stops in Washington, Air and Space spokesmen say, the mall facility can display only about 10 percent of the Smithsonian's collection. The annex will provide more space for display and areas for storage away from the mall and the museum's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Md., which still holds much of the collection.

Lin Ezell, a historian and project coordinator of the new museum, calls this "display storage," which allows artifacts to be safely stored and, at the same time, enjoyed by the public.

"We're going to have the best of both worlds," Ezell said, adding that she had no concerns that the new facility will cut attendance at the mall museum.

"They complement each other rather than compete with each other," Ezell said.

Museum officials anticipate the new facility will see about 3 million visitors a year. Its December opening will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.

Though not all the artifacts and features planned for display at the new center will be ready by the opening, museum officials feel that what will be there, and the promise of more to come, will be enough to keep the public interested.

"I was at first disappointed that we weren't going to open with everything in place," Ezell said. But, she added, "It's a way to lure people back."

Among the artifacts visitors will see are several large, fully assembled aircraft, such as an Air France Concorde, which is too big to fit in the mall facility.

Smaller aircraft are positioned on the floor beside -- and in some cases beneath the wings of -- the larger planes. Some of the smallest aircraft hang from the arching trusses of the 10-story-tall ceiling.

Guests will enter the hangar complex on the second level, and will first see hanging above them "The Little Stinker," an aerobatic plane that was the smallest of its kind when built in 1946. Walking straight ahead and peering over the railing, visitors will see the black Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a type of aircraft still used for military reconnaissance.

Walkways about four stories from the floor will allow visitors to examine up close the aircraft suspended from the ceiling, many of which are positioned to appear as though in mid-flight so visitors can "experience the sensation of soaring along with the aircraft," according to statements from the museum.

Guests can use ramps to explore the larger airliners on the floor.

Among the large artifacts on the floor is the Enola Gay, which in 1945 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in the first of two such attacks credited with ending World War II in the Pacific. It is the first time in more than four decades the Boeing B-29 Superfortress has appeared fully assembled, though it is not the first time the museum has attempted to display it. And, as in times previous, the current exhibit has spurred criticism.

"You have to talk about human victims," said Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, an anti-war organization. "And you have to talk about (the atomic bombing) being controversial, about whether it was justified."

Peace Action joined a group of scholars, veterans, authors and others in arguing that the museum's description of the plane focuses too much on its technological achievements and not enough on the damage it caused after dropping an atomic weapon.

Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, has led a petition to convince the museum director, retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Dailey, to change the exhibit and engage in open discussions about the history and future of nuclear warfare. Critics fear the exhibit glorifies the bombing and, in doing so, justifies future use of nuclear warfare.

"What we're saying is history has consequences," Kuznick said. "We see this as part of a dangerous attempt to get more acceptance of nuclear weapons."

Despite a petition drive, the museum has indicated it will not change the exhibit. Spokesmen declined to answer questions about the plane, referring reporters to a statement on the museum's Web site.

"This type of label is precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum," the statement says. "Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history."

The museum considers itself an educational institution, though, and teachers from Fairfax, Loudoun and Potomac counties in Virginia will rotate teaching sessions at the museum for students, said museum spokesman Frank McNally.

"When students come with their school groups ... it will be a real learning experience," McNally said. "It won't just be a day off from the classroom."

If the Air and Space annex looks massive, it's because it has to be -- and was meant to be. Apart from storing many of the museum's largest artifacts, the new facility was designed to resemble an airport. The second floor of a 164-foot observation tower, built like an air traffic control tower, will give visitors a close look at airliners landing and taking off at Dulles. The first floor will eventually house equipment that replicates the inside of a control tower.

Work will continue on the center and visitors will be able to watch specialists do restoration work on artifacts that will become featured exhibits.

One of the features on which work will continue is the installation of visual displays that will accompany many of the exhibits. Using Quick Time Virtual Reality photography, specialists are devising a way for guests to examine the planes inside and out.

"Because we don't let people get inside our aircraft, there's so much you don't get to see," Ezell said.

Thirty-six photographs of each plane are taken and worked into a display that will give visitors a sense of what it would be like sitting in the planes' cockpits.

"Museums have this love-hate thing," said Dennis Biela, a photographer with LightSpeed Media, which was contracted by the museum to create the displays. "They want you to come and look at all the stuff but they don't want you to touch anything."

Another feature that will give visitors more than a glance at aviation are flight simulators -- a virtual piloting experience -- and a 487-seat IMAX theater. Visitors will be charged fees for the simulator rides and the theater.

A food court, gift shop and a parking lot with a 2,000-car capacity will be available for public use Dec. 15. A bus service will later operate between the mall and the new facility. There will be fees for the bus service.

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For more information about the complex, call 202-357-2700 or visit si.edu/visit.

Topics: Enola Gay
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