Viewport: A Visit to Remember
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the February/March 2008 issue of Air & Space.
At the National Air and Space Museum, we are in the memory business. By commemorating past successes, we hope to inspire future ones. And of course we want visitors to remember the time they’ve spent with us. To accomplish these goals, we use powerful memory aids we call Discovery Stations.
Discovery Stations, carts that can be placed almost anywhere in the Museum, are portable learning tools built around a touchable artifact or hands-on activity. Most objects in the Museum are priceless historic artifacts that can’t be touched, but Discovery Stations use items that visitors can experience (see In the Museum, “Welcome Discovery"). Wearing period aviation clothing or a spacesuit glove, examining the “oldest rock you will ever touch,” or twisting a box to discover, as did Wilbur Wright, how wings could be warped to control flight are the kinds of experiences young visitors are more likely to remember.
To make these hands-on opportunities even more meaningful to visitors, we have recruited volunteer station operators who are trained to guide the process of discovery. These volunteers ask questions that help visitors find answers rather than simply describe an object or explain its history. Many of the station operators are high school students, who are learning the difference between instruction that is fun as opposed to simply memorizing facts and figures. We believe our high school volunteer operators enhance the experience for younger visitors. Youngsters identify with them and communicate with them as peers rather than as authority figures. Operators are trained to work not only with young people, however, but with visitors of all ages.
The focus of the Discovery Station experience is not the transfer of knowledge; there is not enough time for that. Our aim is to present artifacts or galleries in an engaging way, leading the visitor to decide that the topic is worth further investigation, long after the Museum encounter is over.
Discovery Stations and the use of hands-on exhibits to support Museum learning are becoming an integral part of exhibition and gallery design at the National Air and Space Museum. We developed Discovery Station lessons, for example, as part of the design of two galleries: “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age” and “America by Air.” We built into both galleries Discovery Station-like features that visitors can manipulate. Now visitors can feel the same clues for flight control by wing warping that Wilbur Wright discovered, see how flight controls operate and have changed with time, and enjoy many other learning experiences directly related to specific gallery themes.
Although many artifacts are not available for visitors to handle, Discovery Stations contain materials that move some exhibits from “Look, but don’t touch,” to “Look, touch, learn, and remember!”
—J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.