District Sights: The National Air & Space Museum

Reflections of a Public Historian in a Science Museum

My husband and I recently took a long weekend trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother and see the sights. We had both been twice before and seen the monuments and some of the major museums, so this time we had a pretty specific list of things we wanted to see.

As a public historian, I obviously enjoy history museums usually more than science or art, but as a museum professional I also deeply appreciate these spaces and do like to push beyond my usual interests. For our trip to Washington, D.C., my husband specifically requested that we visit the National Air & Space Museum, which is a mixture of science and history. It’s an area of history that I’m less interested in except for where it overlaps with social history (how the space race impacted regular Americans, the struggles for racial and gender equality in the study and exploration of space, etc.), but nonetheless we had a great time.

I enjoyed watching my brother and husband discuss, interact with, and enjoy the science together. They showed all of the major markers of visitor engagement–touching what they were allowed to, pointing at exhibit features, talking about what they were learning, and retaining information from one exhibit to another and relating events and facts together. Unfortunately, many of the exhibit spaces in the museum were closed as they carry out renovations, but we did get to see Explore the Universe, Space Race, Moving Beyond Earth, and Exploring the Planets.

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Hubble Telescope image of a nebula.

Space Race traced the history of the Cold War-era competition between the USSR and the USA to achieve major feats of space exploration. It was interesting to learn that the science that would fuel the space race began during World War II with German missiles.

We also saw the SkyLab, the precursor to the Space Station, a space for scientists from many nations to live in space for periods of time and conduct research.

Exploring the Universe focused on the history and development of instruments people have used to view space.

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I was happy to see some inclusion of women’s accomplishments and contributions to astronomy in this exhibit in the text about William Herschel’s sister Caroline Herschel who assisted him in his work. The exhibit caption describes her as “William’s Essential Assistant” but goes on to say that she was “a fine astronomer in her own right.” She found 8 comets and was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, but is best known for assisting her brother in his observations and telescope building…

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Another woman included in this exhibit is Henrietta Swan Leavitt who identified 2,400 variable stars and discovered the link between the brightness and length of brightness cycle of Cepheid variables–basically this discovery is what astronomers needed to measure distances of nebulae.

Exploring the Planets was an interesting exhibit that looked at the properties of each planet in our solar system. It was interesting to learn about the environments and orbits of these planets. It’s crazy to think about just how different these planets are–the red dot on Jupiter is a storm that’s been raging for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Some are made of ice, others have years-long seasons, different lengths of day and night. That was a fun exhibit to walk through and discuss mind-boggling facts together.

All in all, a fun morning spent learning about space with my hubby and brother. I’m interested to see the museum when it’s finished with all of its big renovations and gallery updates. Maybe there will be even more inclusion of women’s and minorities’ roles in air and space.