It’s been nearly four months since visitors from near and far could step foot into a Smithsonian museum. Often surrounded by charter buses and filled with students during the summer months, this summer has looked quite different from years past.
Of the 19 institutions, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is the only one located in Northern Virginia, but is just as frequently visited as those in the nation’s capital across the bridge. According to the deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum, Christopher Browne, the Chantilly location is the fourth-highest visited location in the country, and saw an average of 400,000 visitors in the spring season of 2019.
We recently caught up with Browne to discuss the Smithsonian’s approach to COVID-19, how the institutions plan to reopen in the future, and what he misses most about spending time in the National Air and Space Museum. Highlights from our conversation below.
For someone who has never visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center or the National Air and Space Museum before, what does the location provide?
I’ve always seen the Smithsonian and the National Air and Space museum as national treasures. And I don’t say that lightly because in the case of the Air and Space, and like our other museums around the Smithsonian, we are the nation’s library, its history and its collection point. So what we have at the Air and Space Museum, for instance, are artifacts that speak to past successes and experiences in history that don’t exist anywhere else. They’re truly unique. And in many cases, they’re one-of-a-kind. Obvious examples for us being the Wright Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis.” What we have is the real deal, and maybe that sounds sort of tacky, but it’s really important because one of the things that the Smithsonian prides itself on, and that we take very seriously, is that what we have is truly authentic.
It’s very important that we tell the stories behind these artifacts accurately and authentically in a way that resonates with our many audiences. And I would say more so than other museums, we are in a unique position of having the nation’s collection of the most impactful, meaningful artifacts, whether it’s here at the Air and Space Museum, or the museum of the American Indian and the other Smithsonian museums, we have the benefit of serving as the nation’s museum and home for the collections that the country has put together over centuries.
With so many of us being local, I would add that in this region, we sometimes forget how incredibly fortunate we are that we have such ready access to the museums. They’re more than just national treasures, they’re global icons, so to literally have those in the backyard of Northern Virginia, as well as other museums, it’s a tremendous resource in so many ways, even just for folks locally. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
How did the start of the pandemic impact the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and the National Air and Space Museum, and how did the closing process go?
It’s been a real challenging time for everybody. Above all, the Smithsonian has been making decisions with the employees’ and visitors’ safety, health and welfare first and foremost. That’s what was behind the decision-making to close the museums and the facilities back in March. The decision to reopen and how we go about reopening, a lot of our decision-making, takes into account guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the area’s jurisdictions and how they’re proceeding. We certainly want to be consistent with our neighbors, but at the end of the day, the Smithsonian is making decisions that we feel are in the best interest of the safety and health of our employees and our visitors. After the closure, all except the most essential employees, such as security and some maintenance folks that had to be on site, have been there.
Now, the decision to begin to reopen has been acquainted to the dial on a light switch, as the Smithsonian’s Secretary Lonnie Bunch has referenced it, and that it’s not an on and off switch. It’s more of a dial and asking ourselves, “How do we advance that dial and as conditions improve, what’s driving the decisions to bring back staff?” Largely, many of our staff have been successfully teleworking from homes. We’ve been fortunate to have a rather robust and successful IT support system that has allowed very effective teleworking for many of our employees. Others who work more directly with our collections and restoration activities, and for folks that are not as telework capable, we have brought those folks back in incrementally, having started that on June 15. This has very much mirrored some of the phased reopenings of the region around us. In doing so, we put in place procedures to promote social distancing, the use of face coverings and frequent hand-washing, hygiene and sanitizers and so forth. It’s been sort of a slow turn of the dial. We’ll continue to make those decisions. Obviously, our desire is to get people back into the museums, but to do so safely and in a way that acknowledges the ongoing risks of COVID-19.
When it’s decided to reopen the museums, what will that look like for visitors?
In the case of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is one of the two Smithsonian facilities that secretary Bunch has directed, would be the first to reopen hopefully this month (it would be us and the National Zoo). There are some strict protocols that will be in place for the safety of the visitors and staff. The wearing of mask coverings will be mandatory, and we will be implementing an electronic ticketing system. Entry will still be free, but you’ll need a ticket that is timed in a way to ensure that we don’t have too many people in the building at a time, and can thereby ensure safe and efficient social distancing. But at the front door, we will require face coverings, and that will be an expected condition for all our visitors and staff throughout the course of COVID-19. We also will take into account the requirements of the CDC and other measures that we believe can effectively combat the spread of COVID-19 in a way that still allows folks to begin to access the incredible collection at the museum.
What have you missed most about having the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and other Smithsonian locations open to the public?
Well, certainly for me, it’s the visitors and our employees. As staff, we sometimes have the opportunity to walk through the museums after they’re closed and nobody’s around, and it reminds you that these artifacts, like the Spirit of St. Louis, the exhibited spaceship and more, as incredible as they are, they sit silent. When nobody’s there, they don’t really come to life until there are visitors and the opportunity to tell the stories behind them. Of course, much of our collection is digitized, and we have some very robust programs and educational programs, but there’s no substitute for actually seeing the artifact or the object in person and hearing the stories behind them. There’s a great deal that we can and will continue to do virtually, but museums like ours really need to be open to allow the artifacts and the collection to speak to the public in a very personal way. So we look forward to welcoming visitors back and, of course, we are very much missing our employees and colleagues, and look forward to the time when we can gather again and not worry about the concerns that we have now with regard to COVID-19.
Speaking of virtual offerings, the Smithsonian has gone above and beyond for educational programming and online resources. Can you tell us more about what that experience has been like?
Aside from COVID-19, we’re in the process of rebuilding the museum of the National Mall, and that’s a very large capital project, and it has given us the opportunity to redesign, reimagine and rebuild all 23 galleries. As we went into this project and started it up several years ago (and we’ve still got several more to go), one of our objectives was to go beyond the walls of the museum with the collection. By that I mean it’s one thing to do the brick and mortar of the exhibits, there’s no substitute for the galleries themselves, but the redesign really gave us an opportunity to do things with the collection that we hadn’t been able to do in decades past.
As these galleries are being rebuilt with new objects and new stories and contemporary storylines, it may sound simple, but it’s much more involved in terms of digitizing all of the objects and then putting them into formats and educational programs in a way that you can access (or will be able to access) the collection virtually, because we know that many of the folks, not everyone is going to be able to visit the National Mall or the museums in person. If we can offer a digital experience that perhaps suffices in other ways, that’s really important. The other thing to remember I think is that we’re a place of education. In some ways, the Smithsonian is like a university. It’s really important to craft and put together educational programs that really leverage the collection and the storylines behind them in a way that allows us to reach a much larger audience than can possibly come through our front doors.
There’s no so much stuff online that if it’s parents or others who are trying to do in-home educational programming, it’s almost like, where do you start? It’s almost overwhelming, and that’s where I think the Smithsonian and the Air and Space Museum can play a unique role, because as mentioned before, we come into this with an authenticity and a level of expertise that is not replicated elsewhere. The extent that people want to turn to the Smithsonian and say, “Hey, what do you have?” you can go into the National Air and Space website, for instance, and you’ll see portals that are designed specially for K-12 education and various opportunities to do some quality educating, using the nation’s collection and the experts themselves behind each one. If you’re looking around as a parent, guardian or instructor, keep us in mind because we’ve got some rich material to share.
Despite COVID-19 keeping the museums and exhibits closed for the time being, what are you looking forward to in the future for the National Air and Space museums and the Smithsonian in general?
I think for many of us, certainly for myself, the pandemic and the challenges associated with being in quarantine confirm the relevance and importance of our museums and cultural institutions. I look at what we’re doing as being, frankly, more relevant now than ever before. In terms of being in the education space, but also I think there’s a thirst for people to understand their histories and where that has gotten us, whether good, bad or otherwise.
When you walk into a place like the National Air and Space Museum, you literally see the entire history of aviation and aerospace unfold from the time of the Wright Flyer to the Lunar Module LM-2. It’s just an amazing opportunity that can’t be replicated elsewhere. I’m very positive, as I think a number of my colleagues are, on the role we play going forward, nationally and internationally. COVID-19 is certainly challenging and impactful in so many ways for us, it’s probably persisting longer than any of us would want, but eventually we will get though this. When I ask myself the question, “Why would people want to go to a place like the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center or the National Air and Space Museum?” I think both will continue to play an increasingly relevant role in this country and how we see ourselves. I’m very optimistic about it all, which may seem odd at the given moment, but I think if you look forward, the Smithsonian has been around for a long time and it continues to improve every day.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know at this time?
Be a little patient as we turn that dial toward reopening. When the public first comes back into our spaces, we won’t be able to provide tours, for instance, so be patient with us when we bring these things back while recognizing that the safety and health of our visitors and employees is really what is going to drive those decisions. We’re all looking forward to the day when that dial is turned all the way to the right and we’re back to the normal layout and then up and running again.
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