Throngs of museum-goers mill through the grand entrance hall of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., every day, gawking at such treasures as the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back, as well as Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.
But the famous Milestones of Flight exhibit hasn't significantly changed since the museum opened in 1976.
Now the largest corporate donation ever for a Smithsonian museum — $30 million from Boeing — will let curators remodel the display at the nation's most visited museum to suit today's needs. The gift was announced Thursday.
Museum officials say the exhibit, seen by an estimated 310 million visitors over the years, has problems. "It's not the best experience now," says air transportation curator Robert Van Der Linden. "We're a victim of our own success. We never expected to get seven, eight million people a year."
When all those people enter through the museum's front doors, they immediately must walk through security machines that were installed after 9/11. That security setup was never part of the original design and its intrusion into the exhibit space is a major distraction for visitors who are trying to get their bearings.
"They're walking right by the moon rock without even seeing it!" says museum director Jack Dailey.
The exhibit basically looks like a large lobby with objects randomly placed here and there, and people seem to move about in a confused way.
Curators would prefer to tell a compelling, coherent story about how aviation and spaceflight have changed the world — something that wasn't a priority when the museum opened, because that part of history was still alive in people's memory.
"The Apollo program had only ended in 1972. When the building opened in 1976 they were able to simply put the objects on the floor and know that their visitors coming through would know what they were looking at," says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the museum's division of space history.
The centerpiece of the renovated hall will be a large moon lander from the Apollo era that currently is off in a different corner of the museum. The vehicle looks a bit like a giant mechanical spider covered in gold foil.
"It's big. It's shiny. People will be attracted to it," says Van Der Linden. He and other officials hope it will be like the iconic stuffed elephant in the rotunda of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Other additions will include the model of the "Starship Enterprise" used in the Star Trek television series, as well as a Telstar satellite like the one that enabled the first transatlantic television transmission. Curators also want to include displays that visitors can interact with via cell phone or other mobile device.
The "Milestones of Flight" renovation should be a slow transformation that ends in 2016, which is the museum's 40th anniversary and Boeing's 100th anniversary.
In the meantime, curators say visitors could experience some disruptions, but the exhibit will not close down. And keeping the most-cherished items on display will be a priority.
"One of the reasons we are doing this is the Milestones Gallery is our front door," says Van Der Linden. "And we have to leave our front door open."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Aviation's past is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is the most visited museum in the country. And now, it has received the largest corporate gift in the history of the Smithsonian: $30 million from Boeing.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the money will let curators do the first major overhaul of an exhibit that has been seen by over 300 million people.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: At the National Air and Space Museum building in Washington, D.C., visitors walk through the front doors into a grand hall filled with spacecraft and historic airplanes hanging from the ceiling. But the first thing they see is security equipment. After 9/11, officials installed X-ray machines and walk-through structures that intrude into the exhibit space.
Museum director Jack Dailey says it's a distraction for people trying to get their bearings.
JACK DAILEY: They're walking right by the moon rock without even seeing it because it's too close.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After missing their chance to touch the moon rock, visitors then mill around. One curator says they seemed confused like they don't know where they're supposed to go. In front of them is the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back and above them is Charles Lindberg's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.
This hall is called Milestones of Flight. Its artifacts represent epic air and space achievements. The hall hasn't changed much since the museum opened in 1976. Margaret Weitekamp says that's a problem. She's a space history curator. She explains, at the beginning, the museum didn't need to explicitly tell the story of how aviation and space flight had changed the world because visitors already knew.
MARGARET WEITEKAMP: That was lived memory for people. The Apollo program had only ended in 1972 and when the building opened in 1976, they were able to simply put the objects on the floor and know that their visitors coming through would know what they were looking at.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's no longer true. Lots of visitors weren't even alive back then so curators are planning plenty of changes. The hall's new centerpiece will be a big shiny moon lander from the Apollo era. It's currently off in a different corner of the museum. And there'll be new digital displays and features that will take advantage of people's cell phones and other mobile devices.
Weitekamp says the exhibit will stay open during the remodeling. She says the work should be done in 2016. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.