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Friday, September 6, 2013

September 6, 2013: Virginia Daytrips: Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center

[In honor of my recent trip to Virginia, and to parallel my earlier series on New England daytrips, this week’s series will highlight AmericanStudies trips in ole Virginia. Add your nominations, whether in the Commonwealth or anywhere else, please!]
On the limitations and benefits to a museum that goes big—really big.
I’ve been to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum a few times in my distant past, but on this trip I had the chance to take the boys (and myself) for the first time to the Museum’s new companion facility, Northern Virginia’s Udvar-Hazy Center. The Center has a lot in common with two other museums about which I’ve written in this space, San Diego’s U.S.S. Midway and Fall River (Mass.)’s Battleship Cove; you can’t walk onto or through the numerous planes, spacecraft, and other vehicles at the Udvar-Hazy Center, as you can the ships at those other sites, but what all three spaces share is a commitment to including only full-size, real vehicles that truly convey to their visitors a sense of the size, scope, and power of these technological marvels.
Indeed, the Udvar-Hazy Center includes far more vehicles than either of those other sites (impressively stocked as they both are): the Center comprises both the Boeing Aviation Hanger, with hundreds of places and aircraft including a Concorde, a jet airliner, an SR-71 Blackbird, the Enola Gay, and many more; and the James S. McDonnell Space Hanger, which features the space shuttle Discovery among its many spacecraft and rockets and exhibits. The Center’s hangers are so giant and so full, in fact, that I found it ironically difficult to appreciate each individual item and exhibit, particularly those in the Aviation Hanger; the Discovery is isolated enough that visitors can really gauge its size and take time to examine its details, but the planes and airfract in the Aviation Hanger are so plentiful that it’s possible (hard as it might be to imagine this) to overlook the Concorde, to walk directly beneath the Boeing jetliner without realizing it’s up there, to miss out on the fact that the big silver military plane is none other than the Enola Gay. In some ways, that is, the Center feels more like a warehouse than a museum, and it’s hard to learn as much from a warehouse.
On the other hand, there are definite advantages to the Center’s particular approach. For one thing, I can say with certainty that it works well for young boys, who wouldn’t be able to stand still long enough to appreciate all the details of any one exhibit but who can through the Center’s holdings collectively appreciate so much of the breadth and depth of aviation, space exploration, technology, history, and related themes. And for adults, the Center offers so many different focal points that it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding some particular exhibit and space that doesn’t speak to our interests and identities. Want to see a plane that Amelia Earhart flew, or one of the Wright Brothers’ first efforts? They’re there. Prefer to learn about stunt flying as it has evolved over the years? You’re covered. Want to really compare the first manned space vehicles against a space shuttle? Go for it. If a Museum’s job is to cover its subjects thoroughly and compellingly—and that is one main job for sure—then the Center succeeds, and then some.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So what do you think? Takes on the week’s trips? Other ones (anywhere) you’d highlight?

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