Written by Justine Rothbart
The lights are out. It is several hours before the museum opens. As I walk across the elevated walkway through the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, I see the silhouette of airplanes in the distance. I see the replica of the Wright Flyer. I see the Concorde. I see the Enola Gay. I look around and hear silence. I am not hearing the engines roar or the echo against the airplane hangar. I hear silence. Silence is not usually a word associated with aviation. The eerie sensation of knowing the historical importance paired with the earth shattering silence was very unsettling, yet profound. These objects seem as if they are lifeless, but their incredible stories are what bring them to life today. Those stories are found in the archives.
This summer I worked with the audiovisual collection in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Archives at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. The NASM Archives is located in the back of the museum and I walked across that elevated walkway every morning to work. Passing the empty airplanes just reinforced to me the necessity of the archives. Working with the audiovisual collection, I would hear oral histories and see motion pictures. I watched interviews with the Enola Gay’s pilot which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I listened to Amelia Earhart’s voice describing her difficulties during her transatlantic flight. Now when I walk across the walkway, I see them. I no longer see just the cockpit, the fuselage, and the wings. I see the people. I hear their voices.
Working with the audiovisual collection in the NASM Archives, I processed reel to reel tape, cassette tapes, CDs, VHS tapes, and 16mm film. Even though I was not able to listen or watch every item I processed, I knew their importance. Everyone has a story to tell. The archives is just one aspect of the museum’s operations, but in my opinion, it is the one aspect that brings the entire story together. Visitors see museum objects without realizing how important the archival collection is to creating the exhibits. Archival institutions need to advocate for their collections. Since archival material is usually locked away in storage vaults, it was difficult, in the past, to raise awareness about items in the archival collection. Now with the technological advances and the digitization boom, it is easier to promote the archives as a segment just as important as the museum objects themselves.
The next time you see a museum object, I hope you think, “What is the story behind the object? What are the archival items associated with the object?” Whose voice do you hear?