Viewport: A Battle for Hearts and Minds
From the desk of the Director of the National Air & Space Museum
- By J. R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
"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 April/May 2009 issue of Air & Space.
When the feature film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian opens in theaters this May, moviegoers will see scenes that were filmed in the National Air and Space Museum. The artifacts in those scenes, however, behave a little differently from the ones we see every day. (I don't want to give anything away, but I think it's safe to say that the Wright Flyer was never capable of doing what it appears to do in the movie.) The artifacts have been transformed by imagination, and I think it's great.
We at the Museum recognize that we're competing for visitors' leisure time, and we know that if we are to win that competition, the education we offer has to include a little entertainment. Night at the Museum and another sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—also filmed partly in our Museum, and opening this June—help us do that. We're hoping the movies will make people curious about the real artifacts. And we're very good at satisfying curiosity.
While there's no doubt that 20th Century Fox uses artistic license in creating an adventure in the Smithsonian, the studio got at least one thing exactly right: Airplanes are exciting. As a matter of fact, one of the airplanes appearing in the movie, the Lockheed Vega, has a backstory with as much adventure as the movie plot.
Flying that very airplane in May 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone. A few months later, she took it up again on the first solo flight by a woman across the United States. A fast little monoplane in an era of biplanes, the Vega was a real performer. It had such long range and could fly at such high altitudes that everybody who wanted to set a record used it. Wiley Post flew one around the world; we have his Winnie Mae at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. If you come to see Earhart's Vega in the Museum on the National Mall, you'll see why it got picked for the movie: Bright red and beautiful, it has star quality. And it inspired one of today's greatest pilots to pursue a career in aviation.
Airshow performer Patty Wagstaff told me that when she visited the Museum with her parents as a young girl, she let them know she wanted to be a pilot. Her mom said to her, "Patty, girls don't fly." But she saw the red Lockheed that Amelia Earhart flew across the ocean and across the country and thought, "If that girl could…." A few years later she became the U.S. national aerobatic champion. She won the title three years in a row.
When you visit the National Air and Space Museum this summer, go to the Welcome Center, and volunteers there will tell you how to find the Vega and the other artifacts appearing in Night at the Museum. You may not have the same type of adventure that actors Ben Stiller and Amy Adams have in the movie (and believe me, that's a good thing), but there is no doubt that adventure awaits you at the Smithsonian museums—and inspiration too.