The Miami Valley’s most popular attraction, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, will reopen to the public on Wednesday, July 1. Safety guidelines for the reopening are based on recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the state of Ohio, local health experts and peer institutions across the country.
Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the museum is the world’s largest military aviation museum. With free admission and parking, it features more than 350 aerospace vehicles and missiles and thousands of artifacts in 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. Each year, more than 800,000 visitors come from around the world.
“Our museum carries stories of people accepting and overcoming challenges to lead to a better life for all,” says director David Tillotson, who believes those stories can be especially inspiring at this time in our history. They range from overcoming technical challenges in air and space to overcoming social and societal challenges.
Tillotson tells us what you can expect when you visit.
Q: What will be different for visitors?
A: The most visible initial change visitors will encounter are the new procedures for entry and exit. We are in the process of modifying the building access plan so that visitors will come in through one set of doors, and departure will be through a separate set of doors. General access to the gallery floors will be largely unchanged — it’s a big space.
However, some of our accessible aircraft, especially the presidential aircraft, will initially not be open for visitors to walk through. We are also considering how to modify or remove interactive displays for the near term. For attractions, café and retail, we expect all to be open with guidelines to limit the numbers of people, and to ensure we can support cleaning between use. While we do not plan to have timed entry, the access to the attractions and retail operations will require that visitors consider when they would like to visit those amenities during their visit. Perhaps the most positive and permanent change that visitors will encounter is that we will now permit visitors to bring their own bottled water into the galleries.
Staff members who interact with the public will be masked and all visitors must wear masks; check-out and payment locations will have sneeze guards and we will regularly sanitize high-traffic areas. Our cafeteria operation will be modified to support over-the-counter service rather than “grab and go,” and seating in the cafeteria will be limited.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge for you and your staff over the past few months?
A: Our biggest challenge by far has been doing the planning to allow the public to have an enjoyable visit while conforming to the new health guidelines. This has required restructuring the museum to allow the public to visit, while making sure that both staff and visitors are afforded an environment that minimizes the COVID-19 risk.
In addition to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which is comprised of Air Force civilian staff, there are two other organizations that are located at the museum. These other two organizations, the Air Force Museum Foundation and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, operate on a more commercial business footing. As a result, the second major challenge for them has been to ensure support of their staffs during a period when they cannot generate income. Both CEOs have done an excellent job supporting their teams, and that ability to maintain staffing has been essential to the success of our reopening planning.
Finally, the last challenge has been how to maintain contact with potential future visitors at a time when actual visits are not possible. Because we do have Air Force civilian staffing, we have maintained a schedule of continued updates to the museum in terms of new exhibits, and gallery reorganizations.
We expanded our digital museum experience through the virtual tour which allows visitors to take a 360-degree, self-guided tour of the entire museum. Virtual visitors can access online educational activities such as lesson plans, word searches, coloring sheets and other items that can be done at home, along with new videos, including first-hand accounts from veterans who served on missions from several different eras.
The tour also offers virtual reality capabilities (using Google headsets) and social applications such as the snapshot tool (camera icon) which allows for individuals to screen grab their location and post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites.
Q: Are there positive things that have come out of these past months?
A: Despite being closed to the public, the Air Force civilian staff were able to continue production and deployment of new exhibits planned for this year. A new exhibit on the global positioning system (the way your mapping tools on your phone and car work) is already on the floor. A new exhibit on how we put satellites in geosynchronous orbit (the inertial upper stage booster) is also on the floor. Both of these are available to the public upon reopening.
On the heels of those exhibits, we will have enhanced displays about the aircrews who actually move the presidents back in the presidential gallery in the August time frame. What music did the presidents enjoy? Were there really jelly beans on the aircraft?
Finally, by November we will have in place a museum-wide update on women in the Air Force. Not only will we highlight individual women, but we will trace the changes in policy and law that have allowed a greater role for women in the armed forces. And again, there are some human interest elements. For example, what does a fine arts major have to do with the Mercury space program?
We have also used the time to plan ahead. Our experience with social media is causing us to continue to evolve how we interact with new audiences who have little familiarity with the Air Force, the Space Force, or even the Department of Defense.
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Q: Any other exhibits in the works?
A: We are partnering with the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA) on an exhibit called “The Beauty of Space,” scheduled to open in late summer. This temporary exhibit will offer visitors awe-inspiring art in various media created by artists across the country. Given the first manned space launch from the U.S. in nine years, we think two new space exhibits and an art exhibit will provide interest.
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