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Why is the Air and Space museum so popular? June 2, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in write every day no exceptions.
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Re: Write essays every day no exceptions, it seems I’ve already screwed up, as it is technically June 2nd now. An inauspicious start.

Anyway, essay of the day.


Many people seem surprised when I inform them that the National Air and Space Museum is the most popular museum in the world. Six million people visited in September; I hear that last year nearly seven million attended. About 200 million people have visited since its opening.

So… why? What’s the charm? What is it about NASM that draws people? More specifically, what is it about NASM that makes it better than other museums?

Well, let’s take a step backwards first. The National Air and Space Museum is, of course, part of the Smithsonian institution, widely regarded as some of the best museums in the world.

“But,” you say, “There’s a lot of great museums? What about the Metropolitan in New York? The Louvre in Paris? Or if we’re talking about air museums, Evergreen Air Museum in Oregon? What about the countless other science museums?”

It’s very, very simple. Admission to the Smithsonian is free. If you’re a local, there’s honestly no reason not to go if you have time to kill (I’ve done it dozens of times). If you’re here on vacation, why on earth would you pass a deal like that up? Lord knows the rest of this city can be ridiculously expensive if you’re a tourist! There’s very little that’s truly free these days (and even the museums aren’t quite free, as the upkeep comes out of our tax dollars; but if you’re from another country, it really is free) and the Smithsonian is one of those things.

I won’t even bother to go into the expansiveness of our collections, the dedication of our staff, and so on. The name ‘Smithsonian’ speaks for itself.

“Very well,” you say. “That explains why the Smithsonian institution itself has the most popular museums in the world. Sort of. But why is the Air and Space Museum the most popular of those?”

I’m not going to deny that the other museums have equally great collections. The Natural History museum probably has more total visitors, as it’s been open longer, and they did beat us for yearly attendance I think in 2008 or 2009 (I can’t recall off the top of my head). American History has one of the best collections of artifacts pertaining to that history in the world (the actual Star Spangled Banner, anyone? Lincoln’s hat?). Our art collections are also fantastic, though I’ll admit that we can’t quite match up with the Metropolitan.

So let me break it down by museum.

American History only focuses on the history of this country. When foreign visitors come to visit the Smithsonian, there’s only so much that’s going to be of interest. Even to American tourists, how many of us snoozed through our history classes? If you’re not inclined to enter the museum in the first place, why would you go?

Our art museums are all excellent (my personal favourites are the Freer and Sackler galleries), but art really, really isn’t for everyone. I will never understand 90% of the stuff in the Hirshhorn. I know people who can’t stand the very Asian art I absolutely adore. Most people will look at an Impressionist painting and go “Oh that’s very nice” without thinking too deeply about it, and can’t see much of a difference between the nice pastoral landscape on their hotel wall and something done by, say, Whistler. Your average tourist isn’t going to go “Yes, let’s go to an art gallery, I’m sure the kids will love it!”

Now, Natural History. This one’s tough, because it has appeal. I can’t think of a kid I know that didn’t think dinosaurs were awesome when they were a kid. I’m sure that if those kids exist, they must have liked something else that Natural History offers – mammals (who doesn’t love tigers?!) or whales (I, for one, wanted to be a marine biologist) or, if they can’t stand things that are alive, really pretty rocks. Also, to go back to the art museum example: Natural History, American History, and Air and Space (the Big Three as they’re sometimes called) also get the most school groups that come through. I didn’t go on school trips to art museums until I started taking art classes, but I see all kinds of elementary, middle, and high school students come through NASM, and I know they go through American History and NMNH, which also kicks up the figures.

If those same school kids go to all three though, and if NMNH has so much awesome stuff, why is that we barely squeak out and beat them in terms of numbers?

Personally?

I think it’s the artifacts themselves.

Think about this: within the walls of our museum, we have the tools to truly fight the force of gravity. We have the first device that carried man in true powered flight – not mere floating, as in balloons (though we represent that too) but true heavier-than-air flight. We have the first plane to break the sound barrier; we have craft that have gone to the moon, photos from the very beginnings of space and time (as Carl Sagan put it, ‘a morning filled with four hundred billion suns’). The entirety of our museum is a monument to the art of the possible, to human ingenuity and as well to the grand beauty of the universe, the stately dance and music of the spheres, as well as the various ways we are actually able to see that glorious dance. It is a testament to humanity’s ability to not merely test the limits, but redefine where they stand and break completely beyond them. I know that as a child, this inspired me – this rock was from the moon! That plane touched the upper stratosphere, this mirror is the same kind of mirror that even now contains the whole of heaven.

I think that’s what makes people come back again and again, every year, to this place. While the Natural History museum tells us how we got here, Air and Space tells us where we might be able to go.

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