America by Air

Review

of an Exhibition

by Sara Eagin

Published on February 17, 2010, Modified on April 16, 2010

  • Description:

    One of the newest exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum is “America by Air” a large permanent exhibit about the history of air travel in America. I have seen the exhibit several times, but for this visit I went looking for technology. Most new exhibits include some type of technology along with the traditional artifacts and images. After some investigation, I saw that computer technology components are indeed scattered throughout to supplement the exhibit.
    The Early Years section focuses on the initial airmail travel, and includes a “Fly the Mail” simulator. The game allows you to attempt to navigate from New York to Cleveland in a 1920’s airplane. Along the way the game introduces challenges and choices that affect the success of the flight. This interactive enhances understanding of the difficulties of early air travel while making it fun and entertaining.
    Section 2: Airline Expansion and Innovation focuses on the early airlines and travel. The computer interactives allow visitor exploration of the growth of different airlines over the twentieth century. Visitors familiar with air travel expand their knowledge with a graphic representation of air routes flown by the top airlines. While the main section focuses on air travel generally, the interactive enhances and extends visitors’ knowledge of the details. One problem with this interactive is its location. It is tucked around the far left end of the reader rail, almost outside the exhibit. While this ensures that users don’t block traffic flow to the exhibit, the obscure location means that many visitors never see the interactive. I only saw this station on my second walk through, when I was specifically looking for it.
    The biggest and most popular computer technology (based on having a large crowd around it nearly every time I have visited) appears between sections three and four. The Air Traffic Control model titled “Safety Wherever You Fly” features a digital map of air traffic across the United States. The impact of the technology comes from the visual representation of the flights. Visitors are engaged as the model progresses through the day, from day break on the east coast through dusk in the west, the map shows just how many flights are in the air at any given time. The maps of weather show exactly how much of an effect snow or storms have on air traffic. Visitors know that there are hundreds of flights in the air, but the visual representation of all of the flights expands their understanding.
    In section four: Jet Age, there are three additional interactive games. In one, you analyze a variety of airplane models, rotating and viewing many more than could actually be displayed in the gallery. In another, children can practice buying an airline ticket, and learn the effects different conveniences and options have on ticket prices. The most engaging and entertaining interactive is a large takeoff/landing simulator that allows hands-on practice of actually flying an airplane. While some visitors I saw could not figure out how to work the simulator, the large screen above the controls allows a broader audience to watch the attempts. This model provides a safe experience that you could never enjoy otherwise and enhances the visit.
    The final small section of the exhibit utilizes several technologies to display air travel “In the News.” A large screen, scrolling LED headlines and several touchscreens all loop through mostly current news stories. I saw few visitors exploring this corner, but the interactives helped connect the exhibit with actual events and showed the relevance of the exhibit in daily life.
    Technology in this exhibit overall is supplementary and fun. But it helps reinforce and expand the concepts presented and fulfills the expectation of technology in an exhibit. For those visitors who missed the interactives, most are also available online. While seeing them on the computer from home is not exactly the same as the in-gallery experience, it provides another chance to enjoy the interactives that the museum worked hard to create.

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