Episode 6: The SFO Museum

Have you ever flown into or out of San Francisco International Airport? If you have, you’ve probably noticed a few plexiglass cases here and there as you make your way through the terminals. But have you ever stopped to really look at those cases? Did you know they’re actually museum exhibits?

Did you know the airport has its own nationally accredited museum?

Did I just blow your mind?

Hopefully I didn’t, but if I did, then you should think of an excuse to come to the Bay Area. And if you live here, you should go to the airport! I know, going to the airport if you don’t have to sounds like the last thing you might want to do, but there are dozens of exhibits you can see without needing a ticket!

If you haven’t guessed by now, this week’s episode of the podcast is all about the SFO Museum. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to not only check out some of the exhibits, but get a behind the scenes tour of the museum with one of its curators, who just so happens to be an old supervisor from my first-ever museum internship back in Massachusetts! I was also given access to some of the research materials held at the Aviation Library, thanks to the museum’s public engagement curator. Again, I can’t stress this enough, I would highly recommend you go check out some of the pre-security exhibits!

The idea of having a museum in the airport space started in 1980, when the San Francisco Airport Commission partnered with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to pilot an exhibition program in the airport. After its first year, the airport established a distinct department within airport administration that would work to create museum spaces within the terminals. The museum was created with the simple yet profound idea of “humanizing the airport environment.” (Which I think we can all agree, airport spaces are usually pretty dehumanizing) In 1999, the SFO Museum became the first and only museum in an airport to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, a national organization that supports and advocates for museums.

The main collecting focus of the SFO Museum is the history of commercial aviation; this makes it different from museums like the the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Flight, both of which have a much broader focus on air and space. Because it’s situated inside an airport, in a city known for being a commercial airline hub, it only makes sense that the SFO Museum would choose a more narrow focus.

The Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpin Aviation Museum not only houses the historical collection, but it also provides research services to literally anyone. If you want to do research at the library, all you have to do is make an appointment to meet with the research librarians! The strength of the collection is focused on the history of commercial aviation, but also with an emphasis on the West Coast and Pacific Region.

When you walk into the Aviation Museum (which is on the departures level of the International Terminal), the first thing you notice is how radically different the space is when compared to the interior of the international terminal. There’s a reason for that! The design of the Aviation Museum was purposefully chosen as an adaptation of the airport waiting room from 1937.

Much of the exhibit space on the first floor is dedicated to rotating exhibits. If you turn to your right, towards the information desk, there’s a fantastic permanent exhibit about the China Clipper, a flying boat made for Pan American Airways that took travelers from San Francisco to Hawaii and Manila, some of the first transoceanic passenger flights across the Pacific. And make sure you look up! There are some wonderful models of various commercial aircraft floating near the ceiling.

In 1984, The San Francisco Chronicle described it as the “biggest museum without walls in the world”, with as many as 17 exhibits running at any one time. The Napa Register commented that the museum created “unique shows [that] fill acres of otherwise austere and characterless airport space”, which, for a museum tasked with humanizing the airport environment, is a direct win.

From the information I gleaned while going through newspaper records at the museum last week, it seems like curator Elsa Cameron was the brainchild behind the idea for the SFO Museum. Everything I’ve read about her has stated she was once a curator for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (which today encompasses the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor) and partnered with the Airport Commission to test-drive the idea of exhibition spaces within the greater airport space. One the test-run was proven successful, Cameron was brought on as the curator of the SFO Museum.

I found an interesting quote from Cameron while going through those articles. I don’t know what newspaper or magazine this came from, but the title of the article is “Art Invades America’s Airports” and it was written by George Heymont. In the article, Cameron says of the visitor experience at the SFO Museum: “this is a whole different audience of people who do not feel as intimidated as some might by the standard museum environment. These travelers want literature, are willing to ask questions, and do not feel they have to be art connoisseurs.” This quote really resonated with me because it is, whether it means to be or not, a real critique of the typical art museum experience. I’ve spent most of my life visiting museums (and let’s not forget I have a degree in them), but I still find myself feeling uncomfortable at most art museums, unsure of how to act or how the guards will perceive my interest in a particular piece.

That feeling of uneasiness rapidly dissipates at the SFO Museum. It’s a little hard to describe, but you just feel…normal? I think it’s a weird combination of the inherent stress of going to the airport these days, having that build up and then getting past security and finding a slight sense of calm because you did it! You made it through the hard part of taking your shoes off and remembering to dump your water bottle before you went through! And then you walk into a terminal hallway, and you can stumble upon any number of exhibits; you might see the history of United Airlines (now on view in Terminal 3), the history of the typewriter (in Terminal 2), or a beautiful contemporary art installation by Mandy Barker (on display in Terminal 1). Museums, and particularly art museums, strive to be places of inspiration and connectivity, as well as respites from the daily stresses of life. To be able to go in to a stressful environment and be immediately greeted with an art exhibit is a pretty amazing transition. So, yeah, I’d say that the SFO Museum certainly succeeds in humanizing an otherwise dehumanized space!

On top of these curated exhibits, the airport also maintains a public art program supported by the San Francisco Arts Commission. This collection is generally site specific, with the commission requesting works from artists for installation within the airport terminals. There are over 60 pieces of art between Terminals 1, 2 and 3, and another 17 were commissioned and installed in the international terminal after it was completed in 2000. These artworks are all reflective of the unique character and culture of the Bay Area, which, considering the Bay Area is known for its artists and public artwork, is pretty fantastic. But how did the airport afford all of these major artworks (dudes there’s a Janet Echelman at the airport, COME ON) in the first place? The San Francisco Arts Commission has a 2% for art program (the Art Enrichment Ordinance) that requires “2% of the gross construction cost of civil buildings, transportation improvement projects, new parks and other above-ground structures such as bridges, be allocated for art.” HOW AMAZING IS THAT?! I’m sure other cities have similar ordinances, but in a city like San Francisco, that just seems so…fitting.

What is so fascinating about the SFO Museum is the rigorous exhibition schedule they keep – it’s far more expansive that other museums! Typically, a museum will be made up of mostly permanent exhibits that, once installed, tend to stay the way they are except for minor updates to text labels (and in some museums you’re lucky to even get that). But that isn’t the case at SFO. The airport has enough frequent fliers that the museum has to keep fresh exhibits rotating throughout each of its gallery spaces. And, of course, installing exhibits is no easy feat, either.

In a typical museum setting, employees can take their time working within a closed-off special exhibits gallery, far from the public eye. But, as we’ve established, the SFO Museum is no typical museum! If you fly through Terminal 3 sometime between now and March, you’ll see the exhibit “Flying the Main Line: A History of United Airlines”, you’ll see that the exhibit cases are situated in the main terminal walkway, between the people movers — but you can’t close that hallway down to install an exhibit! Because it’s a public area that must be kept open at all times, there’s no way to close off the space for exhibit set up. Instead, each exhibit is given a test-run in the museum’s workshop space, crated up according to case, and installed in one day in the airport gallery space.

But Alli, aren’t museums supposed to be places for anyone to visit? How is it fair that only people with tickets get to see all of these cool exhibits? That’s the most expensive museum admission ever!

Haaaa I crack myself up.

I mentioned this at the top of the episode, but it bears repeating: out of 25 galleries, 16 of the exhibits at the SFO Museum are actually PRE-security, so anyone can see them! And, if you really want to see the post-security exhibits without buying a plane ticket, you can set up an appointment with the museum to see the post-security exhibits. But the pre-security exhibits are really a treat, guys.

Because the museum’s collecting focus is on the history of commercial aviation, most of the exhibits on display throughout the airport are collections loaned from other area museums and organizations. Not only does this allow for the SFO Museum to have limitless opportunities for exhibition ideas, but it also gives area museums an opportunity to reach a broader audience than they otherwise would. It’s also a fantastic example of museums helping each other out and really collaborating to share the best of their collections. For example, the exhibition “The Typewriter: An Innovation in Writing” was made possible because it borrows objects from the Computer History Museum, History San Jose, the Joe Welch American Antique Museum, the Museum of American Heritage, as well as several private lenders. The Kids’ Spot in the departures area of Terminal 2 is a play area featuring interactive weather elements from the Exploratorium. So, really, not only does the SFO Museum showcase some of the best of its own collection, it also gives a signal boost to other museums in the area. Everyone wins!

How do you even begin to gauge visitation and engagement every year, though, in a space like an airport with over 50 million travelers coming in and out every year? It seems impossible! While it’s hard to the impact of the exhibits on visitors, a 2013 Hyperallergic article about the SFO Museum estimated that roughly 10% of the airport visitors interact with the museum exhibits, which is a level most other art museums can only dream of achieving!
In addition to the large gallery spaces, the SFO Museum also maintains educational programming for school groups visiting the airport, and runs a student art show every year in conjunction with local Bay Area schools – what an amazing way to show off your art as a student! There are several photography galleries throughout the airport, and a newly installed Video Arts program located on the departures level of the International Wing.

The mission of the SFO Museum is to “provide a broad range of exhibitions and educational programs, collectively represent the diversity of human achievement, enrich the public experience, and differentiate SFO from other airports.” I can say, 100% definitively, the SFO Museum goes above and beyond in achieving its mission. Not only does the central collecting focus of the museum shine through in its main Aviation Library exhibit space, but because the museum so heavily borrows from other collections, it is able to share and represent the diversity of experiences and achievements that the human race has accomplished, while sharing the wealth of other museum collections. It is a truly world-class museum, situated in a world-class airport, and I cannot encourage you enough to go visit! Seriously! Take the Pittsburg/Bay Point or Millbrae BART and go check it out (you’ll get off in the International terminal and immediately see the Arts and Crafts exhibit!).

That’s going to do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake, thanks again for joining me! I want to say a very special thank you to Belinda Li and Sam Scott of the SFO Museum for giving me a great tour of the museum and for helping me with some of the research for this episode. It was a treat to be able to get an in-depth view of the museum! Also I’m sorry I forgot to dump my water bottle out before going through security!

As always, please be sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Overcast, and other fine podcasting apps. If you’d be so kind, I’d love it if you left me a review! If you have questions or comments about this episode, or have suggestions for a future episode, you can send them to me on the podcast Facebook page, tweet me @nobleearthquake, or email me at anobleearthquake@gmail.com. Thanks again to Marcos Bolanos for the intro and outro music to the podcast, and stay tuned for next month’s episodes!

– The SFO Museum: About the Museum; About the Collection; Exhibitions; Public Art Map
San Francisco Aeronautical Society
– Hyperallergic: “Curating At the Airport: The SFO Museum.”
– NPR: “Flying Through San Francisco? Stop to Enjoy the Art.”
– San Francisco Arts Commission: Public Art

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