On April 17, 2012, the Space Shuttle Discovery was delivered to Dulles International Airport on the back of a specially designed Boeing 747. I know many people in the DC area saw it that day as it flew past the Washington Monument and other national landmarks; I saw it from the balcony of my apartment, conveniently located in a Dulles flight path. It was incredible to see and I was nerdishly excited. I don’t have a love of space flight or aeronautical history, but rather, I love the fanfare with which very large artifacts are delivered to museums.
So many museum objects are small. They can be delivered to loading docks or front desks. Often times, at least in my experience, artifacts arrive at museums with no fanfare at all. Yes, museums might celebrate the acquisition of a famous painting or an exciting addition to their collection, but do people come out and see these things delivered? Not usually. They wait until the artifacts are placed on display, with proper lighting, interpretation, and context.
But when there is an artifact that can’t be snuck in the back door, people become excited about the journey, hoping to sneak a peek of the object before it is installed, if only to be able to say, “I saw it when…” In a way, they become part of the story and add personal meaning to the artifact. I haven’t been to the Udvar-Hazy Center to see the Space Shuttle Discovery since its delivery, but something tells me the excitement I felt last April will be re-ignited when I see the Space Shuttle in its new home. I know how it got there. I saw it when…
The Space Shuttle Endeavor rolled through the streets of Los Angeles in what was called “The Mother of all Parades” about a year ago (check out one of many stories here and be sure to look at the pictures!), but that wasn’t the first time a museum artifact had disrupted traffic and excited the people of Los Angeles. About 6 months before the Endeavor arrived at the California Science Center, the 340-ton granite boulder that is at the center of Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” trekked from Riverside to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traveling 105 miles in 11 nights (check out an LA Times overview of the move here). There is a rumor that the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., was built around the Southern 1401 locomotive currently on display in the American on the Move exhibition at the Museum (this rumor is not true). I wasn’t around in 1961 when the 199-ton train was acquired by and delivered to the Museum, but I like to believe that 11-day trip from Navy Yard to the new Museum was something to marvel at (read about it here).
As much as I would love to see more artifacts delivered on the back of an extensively modified Boeing 747 or a flatbed truck or a specially-designed transporter, obviously this kind of delivery isn’t practical for most artifacts. But maybe museums can find other ways to harness this excitement about new acquisitions, regardless of size. Even the smallest artifacts deserve a chance to make someone say, “I saw it when…”