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Air and Space Unveils New Home for Pioneers

By Jacqueline Trescott

The names of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart are part of American lore and have been part of the story told in the National Air and Space Museum for 34 years.

But those star aviators and their flying machines and their headline feats were not alone in the building of America's aviation industry. A new immersion into developments of the 1920s and 1930s, a transformative era in both military and civilian aviation from plane design to rocket engineering, was unveiled Tuesday at the museum.

Peter Jakab, the museum's associate director for collections and curatorial affairs, said the revitalization, with new layout and research, revealed stories that existed "at the intersection of the hardware and human beings."

The impetus to overhaul the old gallery came from a $10 million gift from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The gallery is now called "Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery" after the hotel chain's founder's son, who was born in 1927, the same year as Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight. He is a licensed pilot and is know as the "Flying Innkeeper."

All the iconic planes of the original space were overhauled by the museum's conservation teams. The information and photographic panels were upgraded. The wall dedicated to the adventurous African American flyers of the day and the lauded Tuskegee Airman has been redone. Around the gallery are large banners of the roll call of aviators, engineers, test pilots and designers, who were key to this era of rapid development.

The public fascination with the early airplanes and their pilots continues and the museum has moved the Vin Fizz, the first airplane to fly across the country, which had been in a rear corner, practically over the main atrium. Under the bright red Lockheed Vega, flown twice by Earhart, are display cases of her milestones. An interesting addition is a new acquisition for the museum--a huge trophy chest her husband designed to commemorate her historic flights.

An innovation for the museum is an early learning center in one corner of the gallery, complete with puppets, with programs and tools for children from 3 to 8 years old. The Hilton foundation has an emphasis on early learning and the gift created an endowment for programming for that age group at the museum.

The new gallery opens officially on Friday, followed by a Family Day on Saturday.

By Jacqueline Trescott  | November 16, 2010; 7:00 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Museums, Smithsonian  | Tags:  barron hilton gallery, history of flight at Air and Space museum, national air and space museum  
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