Now Boarding: Airport Museums and the Global Audience

Mark Walhimer Airport Museum Leave a Comment

By Marjorie Schwarzer

Link to AAM Article

This article was published in Museum News, May/June 2001.

“Airports become more like downtowns every year …[and are thus] the central public space of our cities today.” – Robert Bruegmann1

“The modern airport is… a reality on which it is our obligation to found a new way of defining community and tradition and faith.” –Pico Iyer2

Like broadcast television and the Internet, airports are part of an endless global network, crossroads of evolving perception. They are also becoming a museum experience. In July 1999, for the first time, AAM accredited an airport museum: San Francisco Airport Museums (SFAM) at the San Francisco International Airport, a watershed moment that raises a number of intriguing questions for our profession. Have museum professionals recognized the airport as the new downtown, a worthy locale for a museum’s offerings? Are airports a viable setting for museums striving to reach out to the elusive global community? Or, in our ambitions to be expansive, are we, by accrediting commercial airports as appropriate containers for museums, just stretching the definition of museum thinner and thinner?

After all, isn’t airport the antithesis of museum, almost the anti-museum? Museums traditionally function as places of remove and veneration, as sites of pleasure, learning, and memory. Airports, on the other hand, are places we’d rather forget, tenses environments we hope to move through as rapidly as possible. Most museums are about the contemplation of objects in a slowed-down environment; all airports are about speed.

In fact, airports and museums share much in common. Both are symbols of civic status; many cities proclaim in the same breath that they have an international airport and world-class museums. Both are gateways to a metropolis, with airport serving as entry and exit point and museum serving as interpreter. And both are seeking to re-define themselves in surprisingly similar ways. Airports want to serve customer better; they are thus seeking to change their character-less image by fashioning comfortable and entertaining places. Likewise, museums are increasingly concerned with visitor satisfaction; they want to combat their elitist image by becoming more popular and entertaining. SFAM’s accreditation, which speaks to these goals, is an important herald. Over the past five years, museum exhibitions in airports have become a significant phenomenon.3 Around the world, from Frankfurt to Philadelphia, from Minneapolis to Melbourne, museums are working with airports to develop cultural exhibitions and interactive play zones. As airports continue to expand, many more museum-airport collaborations are planned. What does this mean for the field?

Airports: From Spectacle to System to City

Although public airports have been around since the 1920s, to most people commercial flight was unaffordable until the late 1950s. Even then, the airport was a spectacle: a recreational place to go to watch aircraft take off and land. An outing to an airport was so special  that people often dressed in their Sunday best when they ventured there. The airport was removed from the grounded reality of daily life. Recreational amenities included towering waiting halls, elegant dining terraces, observation decks, hotels, and nightclubs. In the 1950s, in perhaps the first blending of museum display and aviation, Orly Airport in Paris exhibited are. 4

Between the 1950s and 1990s, jet planes, deregulation of routes, and fare discounts made flight more affordable. Widespread availability of commercial flights spurred both business and tourist travel. Instead of voyeurs, the middle class became frequent flyers. Crowded terminals, long lines, delays, and frayed nerves were one result. Terrorists acts, hijackings, and air disasters (however rare) were another. Media coverage of such events made people think that air travel was more dangerous than ever, but this was appearance rather than statistical reality. Airports responded to these problems by emphasizing efficiency, security, and safety to their growing public. The airport had evolved from spectacle into functional system.

Over the last five years, the airport has begun to change again. Airplane travel has become more commonplace than going to the dentist. According to the Federal Aviation Agency, there were 558 million commercial airline passengers in the United States in 1996. This number grows each year. On average, on any given day, there are more than 1.5 million people in the air, a sky-based city with twice the population of San Francisco.

Today’s major airports are cities unto themselves, highly trafficked “24-7” public spaces. Many airports are larger than the downtown areas they serve. Some, like Dallas-Fort Worth, are larger than the island of Manhattan. The airport in Osaka, Japan, is so large that it is the only manmade object, other than the Great Wall of China, visible from the moon. Back on Earth, it is possible to fly somewhere and never leave the airport environs, as many business travelers (dubbed the “kinetic elite” by some airport planners) do routinely. Passengers, their companions, and an ever-expanding number of airport, airline, and support services personnel use airport post offices, supermarkets, movie theaters, ATMS, chapels, stores, and restaurants. At Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, there are even plans for an upscale brothel,5 giving new meaning to the term “layover.”

Airport as Paradoxical Place

As urban places, airports are paradoxical. They are simultaneously a commercial marketplace, a transitional space, and a non-place. Airports are among the busiest marketplaces in the world. Although often subsidized by governmental agencies, they depend on their retail sales. “Each dollar we can generate from concessions is one less dollar we need from the airlines,” explains Tony Gugliotta, CEO of the Vancouver International Airport Authority in Canada.6 Overpriced souvenir and food stands have long been an airport mainstay, but in recent years, airport shopping has become sophisticated. Planners recognize that in the competitive aviation industry, frequent flyers may favor airports that set themselves apart. Some airports, such as Pittsburgh’s, host up-scale malls with prices competitive enough to attract locals. Themed retail efforts even resemble museum experiences. Moose Creek Village at Vancouver’s airports includes a huge animatronic moose and a flock of honking geese.

Despite efforts to be general marketplaces that attract locals and serve as business centers, airports are rarely destinations in and of themselves. They are not local place, but are linked to other airports, part of the experience of flight and travel, cities of transience. More than any other sites within metropolitan regions, airports are about connecting to other places. Destination monitors; ticket counter; queues of shuttle vans and taxis; people arriving and departing, some in winter clothes, others dressed for tropical climes, all anticipating other places. Air passengers, notes travel writer Pico Iyer, “exist in the cracks between cultures…[they] live in limbo, without orientation, neither here nor there.”7 For most passengers, airports are transitional places.

All too often, however, spending time in an airport feels like being no place. A by-product of our global economy is that it’s harder to distinguish between places, whether they are edge cities, shopping centers, or airports. Airports seem to look more-or-less alike. We hardly know whether we are changing planes in Atlanta or Hong Kong.

The Museum’s Place in the Airport

A great motivation for airport exhibiting has been creating a sense of place for travelers. As Chicago Art Institute Curator John Zukowsky writes, “the modern air traveler is a nomad who wants to feel at ease everywhere in the world community.”8 Changing planes in a hub may be the only experience some people have of a certain metropolitan area. For others, the airport offers the first and last impression of a visit. Yet airports have traditionally been poor ambassadors for their locales. This lack of character has led some politicians to pressure airports to recognize their civic duty to set the tone for a visitor’s encounter with the community.

Enter the museum. For the last 200 years, museums have been an integral aspect of civic identity. Thus museums are logical additions to the airport, an infusion of local flavor and color. Museum exhibitions have the potential to transform the airport from non-place into place.

Museums in airports play three, sometimes overlapping, roles. First, some museums see an airport locale as a pragmatic setting for marketplace positioning. Indeed, most collaborations are overseen by museum or airport marketing and public relations departments. Second, some more creative airport exhibition programs directly speak to the airport as transitional space. And, finally, in cases like SFAM, innovative airport authorities finance their own museum operation.  Here, the museum is tied to an even broader vision – to add value and meaning to the airport as place.


Museums seek out opportunities wherever they can find them. They have a mandate to reach larger numbers of people and more diverse communities. Given the hundreds of millions of people who pass through airports, the airport museum experience has great potential. According to staff at SFAM, 12 percent of airport users stop to look at exhibits. Moreover, objects are seen by people who might never set foot in a museum.

Marketplace relationships between airports and museums involve a variety of strategies, ranging from direct retailing to public relations. In one of the first such arrangements, the entrepreneurial Denver Children’s Museum developed a 10,000-square-foot satellite in its city’s former airport, Stapleton, in 1992. The goals were to generate revenue (through a store and $1 admission fee), corporate sponsors, and audience. Likewise, the centerpiece of Boston Children’s Museum’s 1998 family exhibition at Logan Airport is a branch of its shop. In fall 2000, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened an outpost of its gift shop at the airport.

In 1998, Washington, D.C.’s airport authority contracted the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (HSW) to curate an exhibit for a retailer, the airport branch of TGI Friday’s Restaurant. According to HSW Executive Director Barbara Franco, the airport required the restaurant to have a local theme in its decor. Because the restaurant owners wanted their own corporate identity in the airport, they were initially resistant.  But eventually they worked successfully with the museum’s curators to create a historical exhibit featuring photographs and color copies of ephemera from HSW’s collections. Through this arrangement, HSW not only gained financially, but it had the opportunity to expose its collections and mission-related content to new audiences.

Increased visibility and public relations is a strong motivation fro museum airport collaborations.  Debra Young, director of marketing and communications at Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art (CMA), calls the airport “great real estate.”  Since 1996, for an annual fee, CMA has developed and maintained a series of airport installations promoting art in Columbus.  One area displays artwork created by children who participate in CMA’s educational programs.  The airport in Norfolk, Va., takes another approach.  It donates space to local museums such as the Coast Guard Museum and the Virginia Zoological Society.  The airport provides keys to empty cases, and the museums are responsible for producing the display.

Prime real estate or not, these marketing-focused collaborations raise a number of business concerns.  Can retail operations cover their costs? Boston Children’s Museum is renegotiating its financial arrangements with the airport; Denver’s project was discontinued when the airport relocated.  Do airport displays entice potential visitors to the mother site, functioning like movie previews or 3-D advertisements?  Or are they counter-effective; that is, will tourists feel they have already experienced at the airport most of what a museum has to offer?

Transitional Spaces

Museums traditionally function as attractions in and of themselves. This is rarely possible in an airport.  Some curators working with airports recognize and respond to the transitional nature of the airport experience. Site-specific art, family exhibitions, and satellite exhibitions can create a comfortable zone for layovers and delays and serve to connect passengers to the community that lies beyond the airport.

With airport construction costs reaching beyond $2 billion, “1 percent for the arts” initiatives provide substantial funds for art purchases.  These programs, which are often overseen by local arts commissions, adorn airports with site-specific work that directly addresses the romance of flight.  Typifying airport art are the prints displayed in John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., which depict soft images of wings, clouds, sky, and fanciful aircraft.  Orlando, Florida’s airport has an active “Act in Public Places” program with 15 site-specific works, some flight-related, others not.  Many airport art programs – such as Albuqueque’s – commission and purchase art that showcase and supports regional artists.  Other airports, such as those in Minneapolis or Louisville, Ky., commission vibrant murals that portray people, culture, history, and unique sites of their locales.

As many of you know, art alone will probably not distract young children from the long hours, delays, and cramped quarters of modern airline travel.  Children’s museums have thus created airport play areas as a service to traveling families.  In the mid-1980s, in what was perhaps the first children’s museum presence in an airport, Boston Children’s Museum (BCM) was sub-contracted to provide content for a play area at Logan Airport. In 1997-98, in exchange for reduced rent on space for the aforementioned museum shop, BCM constructed “KIDPORT.”  Characterized by BCM’s Executive Vice President Neil Gordon as a 4,500-square-foot “family oasis,” “KIDPORT” features a play cockpit, baggage claim slide, and other kid-sized flight-related exhibtry, complete with a rest area and tips for families traveling with young children.

In 1995, O’Hare Airport contracted with Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) for the content and design of “Kids on the Fly.” This free-of-charge interactive satellite exhibit is maintained by the airport and promoted by CCM as part of its exhibition program.  Like Boston’s exhibit, the colorful “Kids on the Fly” interprets aviation to young children.  The exhibit’s designer Peter Exley notes that: “A freebie such as ‘Kids on the Fly’ goes a long way to making the airport experience less traumatic.”

Some people venture into a community only to use its airport.  For example, the only time many San Francisco Bay Area residents go to nearby Oakland, Calif. is to catch a flight out of the airport there. In 1997, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was approached by the airport’s marketing staff who wanted to expose passengers to positive aspects of this interesting, yet often-maligned, city.  Dennis Power, OMCA’s director, was intrigued by the chance to use collections, especially objects deep in storage, in a new way.  The museum was given a five-year contract to organize up to eight shows a year in two specially designed exhibition spaces. OMCA has thus far produced exhibitions on such topics as local sports legends, cowboys, and wildflowers.  It has also used the airport to test exhibition ideas and themes. A full-time OMCA staff member oversee the program.9

Airport as Museum Place

The airport museum has revolutionized the airport and museum in an even more complex way.  An airport museum is not a public relations vehicle or satellite for an extant museum.  It is an integral part of airport operations and exists only within the airport in which it operates.  As SFAM Curator John H. Hill says, “airport museums are an exciting application of museum standards and experiences in a non-traditional environment.”

The Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum has been housed in its entirety at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas since its founding in the early 1990s.  It began as a repository for the collections of Peg Crockett, whose Las Vegas home was demolished for airport expansion, and is now a $300,000 annual line item in the airport’s budget.  Exhibits in 34 cases focus on aviation history in southern Nevada.  According to the museum’s administrator Mark Hall-Pattton, there is a “decidedly Las Vegas bent” to these exhibits, which include a display of roulette ashtrays that airlines used to promote Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s.  The museum competes with other locally distinct airport amenities, including 1,200 slot machines.”10

Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport finances an art collecting program.  Since 1989 the program has produced more than 300 exhibitions in a 2,600-square-foot gallery in the airport’s main concourse and in 13 large cases in various terminals.  Exhibits range from “Arizona’s Bizarre and Beautiful Bugs” to Contemporary Arizona Ceramics” to “Super Bowl XXX.” Sky Harbor’s full-time curator, Lennee Eller, claims that, in some instances, the airport’s art shows have become a destination for locals.

Founded in 1980 with support from then-San Francisco mayor Diane Feinstein, the AAM-accredited SFAM is one of the oldest airport museums in the United States. With technical help from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the museum has a dizzying array of changing exhibitions–on topics ranging from platform shoes to surfboards to the drum collection of ex-Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart-in 10 designated spaces.In December 2000,SFAM opened the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum as part of a new $2.4-billioninternationalterminal complex. Collections are housed in an11,OOO-square- foot facility modeled on the airport’s demolished 1937 Spanish mission-Style passenger waiting room. Like the Phoenix airport’s art exhibitions, this museum is a destination point.

Museums in Airports: Some Choppy Air

Besides their unique housing, airport museums share several other commonalties. Like traditional museums, they own, preserve, exhibit, and interpret collections. They deal with distinct conservation challenges that they take very seriously. But unlike museums, airports never shut down. Preparators often install exhibits amidst gawking passengers. Operating “24-7” creates security concerns as well as environmental hazards, such as high levels of light and vibrations from airplanes and passengers. John Burke, head of conservation at the Oakland Museum, praises airport authorities for being open to solving these problems. In fact, he feels that airport staff is more understanding of the parameters of collections care, perhaps because they are so attuned to safety issues, than a few museums he “can think of.” On the other hand, staff at other museums report that airport employees do not understand the damage that airport-strength cleaning fluids can cause to objects or vitrines. And although theft is minimal in such a high surveillance environment, employees who know how to evade airport security have occasionally stolen objects. However, in general, airport employees take great pride and interest in airport exhibitions. SFAM, says Registrar Dwyer Brown, once displayed an enthusiastic airport employee’s prized collection of police hats from around the world.

A third commonality is the formidable task of operating within the airport bureaucracy-a highly efficient organizational structure with strict rules and regulations and many other priorities besides the museum. One logistical problem associated with this bureaucracy is budgeting. FAA regulations demand that any ongoing airport expenditure in excess of $175,000 be approved not only by the airport authority, but by the airlines. Another logistical challenge is signage. Signage and graphics are critically important to exhibit designers who want to distinguish their exhibitions from airport retail or directional signs. But airport planners need to keep people moving as smoothly as possible. They fear that distinctive signage may confuse passengers, especially those whose primary objective is to catch their flight or pick up luggage, not to view an exhibition.

Serving the serendipitous, as opposed to intentional, visitor is the most challenging obstacle faced by museums in airports. As the Cannon Museum’s Hall-Patton notes: “an interesting problem is that our visitors have a profound lack of interest in our existence.” Airport passengers come upon museum exhibitions by happenstance and, perhaps, only because their flight has been delayed. In these cases, exhibitions play the role of useful time-killer. Yet, as Hall-Patton observes: “a captive audience with time on their hands. . . is not a bad audience to work with.”

What does it mean to engage an unintentional visitor in exhibit content? How can a museological context for an object be established in a fast, stressful environment? Clearly, airport museums must look at their content through a different lens than other museums. For one thing, airport museum curators choose populist rather than scholarly topics, usually on local themes. Colorado’s Loveland Gallery and Museum recently loaned historical photographs to Denver International Airport (DIA) for “Tracing the Roots,” an exhibition on the history of jazz in Denver.SFAM’s exhibitions often include a playful abundance of like objects, such as chairs, teapots, or boomerangs, to make a strong visual impact on the viewer in a rush. Size also matters; airports tend to feature large works of art and towering exhibitions, both because they have ceiling height that allows it and because these objects are eye catching.Mimi Moore, manager of DIA’s arts exhibition program, says that subtle displays, no matter how beautiful, are less appreciated by airport visitors. Hall-Patton believes that passengers’ favorite airport exhibitions contain objects that they can quickly put into context, such as the restored 1956 Ford Thunderbird in his Las Vegas museum. Eller feels that a sense of humor is essential to the airport museum experience. Airport exhibitions, Oakland’s Project Manager Cherie Newell points out in jest, should contain “no bummer information.”

This light touch distinguishes airport museums from other museums. They stay away from the challenging, the controversial, and the potentially offensive. Nude images must be chosen carefully. Eller once received a complaint from a Phoenix passenger upset at images of nude dogs in a William Wegman exhibit. She explained to the disgruntled passenger that dogs do not customarily wear clothes.

Despite desires of some artists to create conceptual works for airport display on disagreeable aspects of flying, most airport exhibits refrain from alluding to disasters, death, or terrorism, or as Phoenix’s policy states “anything that would make airline passengers apprehensive about flying.” Many traditional museums see their societal role as challenging, confronting, and deepening the human experience. That level of discourse would never take place in an airport exhibit. Nonetheless, airport authorities are enthusiastic and forward thinking in their vision to bring museum display to the airport. They view the airport museum as an extension of civic responsibility.

Museum Perception on the fly

The alliance between airport and museum is a telling aspect of 21st-century global society. As we travel and experience more, time becomes an ever-more precious commodity.

We seek to gain the most value from every experience we encounter, including our hours in the airport. Leisure and purposeful activity are increasingly blurred. Multi-tasking is now the norm.

Airport exhibiting thus raises critical questions about the museum experience: how are objects perceived in a sped-up world? How do viewers take in objects while multi-tasking-that is, while drinking coffee, talking on a cell phone, and glancing expectantly at departure monitors? Objects displayed within concourses, along moving walkways, at gates, and in restaurants are perceived differently because they are part of the public domain and not the carefully designed space of a museum. Airports were not intended to be exhibition spaces, nor do airport museum curators have much control over where exhibitions are placed. Rather, exhibits occur in spaces dominated by other activities, jet engines roaring, passengers leap out of the way of motorized carts, and frequent boarding announcements. They also occur in “leftover” spaces, those that can generate retail income. Unlike tradition museums, where architecture sets a total context for the viewer’s perception, airports create a radically mixed set of contexts for an object. Since we don’t experience these exhibits, we are frequently surprised and moved by their incidental nature.

Airport authorities may be enlightened partners for museums, but is the airports museum experience all that meaningful? In interviews for this essay, people from all walks of life (my neighbors, friends, relatives, and dentist) were overwhelming enthusiastic about airport exhibition.Many instantly remembered speech exhibits and, to my surprise, specific objects they had seen in those exhibits. In my non-scientific observations of random visitors at some of the airports discussed above, I saw many people stopping to look, really look, at objects on exhibition.

Is the airport museum experience, then, a precursor of the museum experience the future? For a long time now, museums have been moving toward a more democratic and public presence. Greater community involvement and outreach, increase sensitivity to visitors, and better amenities are making museums more populist and popular. Museums in airports may be significant extension of this trend. Perhaps airport museums are a harbinger of a type of exhibit perception, one that, like watching television with a remote control is shared with other activities and a bit the fly. Like virtual exhibitions, airplane exhibitions do not depend on a museum’s architecture but rather on our ideas a memories of the museum experiences, the museum as signifier.

And, while airports, by including museums, are reaching out to the city, museums are doing much the same thing. By adding cafés, stores, social activities, and other amenities, they insert themselves it aspects of the greater city. The future will likely witness a greater convergence of airport and museum, where traveler and visitor can no longer be separated.


1. Robert Bruegmann, “Airport City” in Building for Air Travel, ed. John Zukowsky(Munich and New York: Prestel, 1996):206.

2. Pico Iyer, The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000):41-77.

3. Lauren Lantos, “Ticket Counters, Baggage Claims-and Rauschenberg?” Museum News, November/December 1994: 26-28; and Maxine Cass, “Culture on theFly,” International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2000: 10.

4. For a comprehensive history of airport design around the world, see Zukowsky.

5. Kitty Bean Yancey, “A workout? Golf game? Take off to the airport,” USA
Today, March 3, 2000.

6. Quoted in Adele C. Schwartz, “Designed for Shopping,” Air Transport
World, March 1, 2000:20-22.

7. Quoted in Dave Gardetta, “So SoCal,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2000:5.

8. Zukowsky, 60.

9. Cherie Newell,” Museum on the Go!,” Oakland Museum of California Calendar,Winter 2000:21-23.

10. Mark P. Hall-Patton, “McCarren Aviation Heritage Museum: Redefining
Museums,” Curator 40, no. 2 (1997): 97-100.

Marjorie Schwarzer is chair, Department of Museum Studies, John F. Kennedy Univeristy, Orinda, Calif.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *