National Air and Space Museum – Smithsonian Institution
Visiting the National Air and Space museum was always going to be a bit of a life highlight for this little space enthusiast. Opened in 1976, this massive building houses all things flight related. It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to go to. I arrived at nine and bypassed the waiting crowds to enter via the staff entrance where I met web manager from digital experiences Vicki Portway who thought it would be a good idea to show me around the museum before the crowds came in so it could just be the two of us. Of course I obliged. Straight away I was faced with the V-2 rocket, parts of the Hubble telescope that had been removed, the Hubble’s flight-ready twin (they always make two!) and the Apollo Lunar Module. Just seeing all of this stuff in one place is damn incredible and also, for the most part literally there for you to reach out and touch.
Smithsonian entry foyer – south (click to explore)
Also touchable was a piece of the moon that had returned from an Apollo mission which I, of course embarrassingly lunged for. It was weirdly smooth I’m sure due to the millions of grubby fingers that have touched it since it was enshrined in the Smithsonian.
Touching the moon.
Also in the corner of the entry hall are two nuclear warheads (unarmed, I was told). One is American and the other Russian and were placed in there as part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Vicki told me that there were a lot of conversations about the awkward place they were in. Conversation which were, however fruitless as both warheads have high resolution GPS tracking attached to them and, as part of the arrangement with the Russians set off big international alarms if they are moved more than a centimetre.
Smithsonian entry foyer – north (click to explore)
Vicki is a total space nerd too and relishes telling me much of this bonus information. We head into an Apollo mission exhibit filled with all manner of paraphernalia from the missions including space suits, uniforms, a rocket engine, urine bags and, disturbingly Able the monkey, originally sent into space now taxidermied in the Smithsonian with a slightly shocked look on his face. Fair enough.
This exhibit, I am in formed is about to undergo a huge refurbishment. There is some tragedy in this. All built with NASA’s late 60s, early 70s kitchy but boldly confident aesthetic with all that blue, the exhibit itself belongs in a museum. The Lunar Module itself will do a national tour (which is a great opportunity for crowd sourcing content) before returning back to DC and the refurbished exhibition.
Just around the corner is an exhibit dedicated to brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright including their 1903 Wright Flyer, the first successful powered airplane. I note to Vicki that it looks in damn good nick. The story goes that the Wright Brothers originally donated it to the British Museum who had it on display for many years. Prior to that, however, and not seeing the immediate value in the object, it had been in the Wright’s basement where flooding had caused damage to the canvas coverings on the wings. During its British Museum tenure the contemporary director of the Smithsonian actually had a rival claim that he, in fact had been the first airborne human. Once he moved on, however the Smithsonian suggested the Wright Flyer might want to come home. At this point the new coverings were placed on and the old, disintegrating pieces given away.
The Wright Flyer.
Once the crowds came in a spent another couple of hours wandering around this awesome place where you can’t help but get swept up in the patriotism of it all.
Admission: Free (and not just if you’re pushy enough for someone to give you a private tour)
Digital Engagement: Some of the old exhibits have a number next to them which you can enter once you’ve dialled a special Smithsonian hotline to hear additional content. Vicki also mentioned that they did have a messaging service as well where people could contribute their own thoughts. There is the relatively new GO FLIGHT app for iOS and Android that fingerprints your location using wifi (which is freely available onsite). You can use the app to personalise your own interests in a special feed, find your location, favourite particular exhibits and a kind of cool feature where you can match any 2 objects from a list from the collection and find out the connection between them. What’s super cool though is a monolithic new touch screen wall the Smithsonian built right in front of you when you enter the main entrance and which Vicki was partly responsible for. Massive still images from the collection rotate above a series of dots which clearly invite visitors to come over and touch. Some represent particular parts of the museum and some represent a tour to be chosen.
Said very large screen.
If you select a tour you have the option of adding it to your app by copying a short numerical code into your phone, thereby syncing your app to the wall. Despite a few problems keeping it clean this is a really nice, useful and beautiful addition to your arrival at the museum.
The Folger Shakespeare Library & The Library of Congress
The Folger Shakespeare Library is a strange little oddity up the Hill next door to the Library of Congress. Opened in 1932 and built by wealthy industrialist from New York Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily, the library houses manuscripts, books and objects that contribute to an extremely broad contextual understanding of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan world. Using some connections from the State Library of Victoria I met curatorial assistants Heather Wolfe and Beth DeBold who proudly showed me around their digs. There’s a pretty amazing entry hall however the reading room is a thing to behold, all built in the Elizabethan style, somehow managing that with a bit of class. Large parts of the catalogue are still not digitised so access to the collection is largely still given by old catalogue cards.
The Folger Reading Room (click to explore)
They take me deep into the vaults of the building where they have all manner of Shakespearalia. I initially asked about what stage they were at with digitising the collection which led to a conversation with Heather about the materiality of this objects and how much of that digital mediums can’t transfer. To actually hold some of the 16th century objects in your hands and, in some cases see handwriting, redactions and personal notes gives a whole other layer of meaning to the objects.
Next I ducked across the road to the Library of Congress, a place that I’ve been fascinated with for years. I did my darnedest to set up someone to talk to there but unfortunately they didn’t take the bait. Apparently they get constantly swamped with requests and mine obviously didn’t cut the mustard. This building has an absolutely incredible golden interior which poses itself as a kind of temple to knowledge.
The Library of Congress (click to explore)
It is largely accessible only by members of congress and researchers with appointments. Slightly frustratingly I could only look down what looked like a completely beautiful reading room behind glass from a balcony upstairs.
The Library of Congress Reading Room.
I did get a close look, though at the Gutenberg Bible which was the first major book mass produced with a printing press. Only when I saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Library did I elbow tourists out the way the same way for a happy snap. Cross that off the bucket list.
Hastily snapped Gutenberg Bible (tourists well clear).
Admission: Free for general entry but by appointment for the reading room for the Library of Congress. Same with the Folger.
Digital engagement: Fairly shameful website on the Folger’s end but after the talk we had about the importance of the real, physical objects I hardly care. Perfunctory, responsive app from the Library of Congress including a visit planner and “contact a librarian” feature which in my case was a no-go. They also do a series of apps including a guide for the National Book Festival, and analysis tool for the US Constitition, The Congressional Record, a tool for the blind and physically handicapped and, weirdly an interactive book of Aesop’s Fables for kids.