Friday, November 16, 2012
Aviation exhibit takes flight at transportation museum
The Virginia Museum of Transportation jumps forward in time with a renovated aviation gallery that includes interactive electronic and physical displays.
Photos by Jeanna Duerscherl | The Roanoke Times
Scott Van Cleef works on putting together a drop test model F/A 18E Super Hornet plane. The plane, which will be on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation as part of its new gallery, "Wings Over Virginia," was donated by Langley Air Force Base.
Jeff Austin, owner of Jeff Austin General Contractors, caulks the windows of a display case at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
If you go
- What: Wheels Up! “Wings Over Virginia” grand opening celebration
- Where: Virginia Museum of Transportation, 303 Norfolk Ave. S.W., Roanoke
- When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
- How much: $5, museum members and children 2 and under free
- Info: 342-5670; vmt.org
The Virginia Museum of Transportation steps into the future Saturday with the opening of its new aviation gallery.
Though it might be more accurate to say that the museum has finally caught up to the present.
"We're going from the 18th to the 21st century just like that," quipped Fran Ferguson, the museum's director of development.
The renovated gallery is the culmination of a comeback that began six years ago, when a storm tore the roof off the building over the previous aviation exhibit, which then was basically just a collection of artifacts that made no effort to provide any larger context.
The new gallery, "Wings Over Virginia," focuses on the national and regional history of flight and features hands-on activities and computer touch screens.
It's a concrete example of how the museum has stabilized financially and responded to feedback since 2006.
Executive director Bev Fitzpatrick said the gallery opening marks the staff's first opportunity "to show an inkling of where we want go."
"Wings Over Virginia" opens with flight as it was imagined by the Greeks and Native Americans, as well as Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine designs, then introduces how the Wright Brothers discovered that altering the shape of the wings would control a plane's direction.
The concept of flight's origin in myth is relevant to the gallery because "these are people stories," said deputy director Don Moser, who oversaw the gallery's creation.
Beyond the origin stories at the entrance, the gallery guides visitors in a zigzag path through the history of aviation, its development as an industry and activity in Virginia, including sections about Roanoke and Southwest Virginia.
The hands-on activities include a station that has model planes with exchangeable parts and one that lets users see different kinds of runway running lights with flicks of a switch. These stations were made by 4DD Studios, a Roanoke fabricator that creates large-scale objects for businesses and museums.
The museum used artists and companies based in the region whenever possible. "About 90 percent of the gallery involved local business, artists, writers and art directors," said marketing director Peg McGuire.
There are also display cases for model planes and vintage uniforms. Carilion Clinic Patient Transportation will maintain a wall devoted to the history of its Lifeguard helicopter program that includes a video documenting how accident response works. "This was the first air medical unit in the state of Virginia," Moser said.
As for people, there's a corner devoted to Roanoke pilot Wes Hillman, 90, and the business he operated for 33 years in Roanoke, Hillman's Flying Service.
Hillman will attend the opening festivities Saturday. Cast members of Hollins University's play "Decision Height," about Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, will also attend in costume, Moser said.
Build, touch, listen
The final stretch of the gallery includes a number of showpieces. There's a radio-controlled scale model, called a "drop model," of an F-18 that was used by NASA Langley Research Center to diagnose engineering problems. The model, including fake bombs made to scale, would be dropped from 10,000 feet to simulate flight conditions. It's on loan to the museum for a year.
There's a fuselage of a 1968 1121-A Jet Commander, donated by Roanoke businessman William Cranwell, that children will be able to climb inside, though they won't be allowed into the cockpit — visitors will have to peek through the windows to see the controls.
The piece de resistance may be the three oral history touch-screen booths.
The stories were selected by Deena Sasser, the museum's recently hired historian, and then engineered by IDD Inc. of Blacksburg. The oral history segments take audio and video recordings of pilots and other aviation personnel from the region and augment them with relevant historical footage to provide a documentary feel.
Legion of Honor winner Bill Overstreet tells the story of flying under the Eiffel Tower in France to shoot down a German fighter plane during World War II, complete with a computer animation illustrating his flight path. The late Chauncey Spencer tells the story of how then-Sen. Harry Truman cleared the way for him to become a pilot after training programs refused to teach him because he was black.
"Nobody else has this in Roanoke," Moser said of the touch-screen exhibit.
"What we're doing in here is a test in a lot of ways," Ferguson said. The museum wants to eventually have oral history booths in its rail and automobile galleries, she said.
The last stretch of the aviation gallery also contains a wall-mounted iPad set to let children call up information about aviation careers.
The gallery is like nothing else in the building — its train and automobile exhibits still amount mostly to showcases of vehicles and artifacts with little history.
The museum eventually wants to upgrade and organize those exhibits to follow the aviation gallery's model. However, there's no timetable for doing so, as much depends on whether the museum can continue to build revenue and support.
"We've been in the black for five years, but we're not real far in the black," Fitzpatrick said.
Back on track
Attendance has gone from 12,000 in 2006 to 40,000 this year, and in five years, membership has gone from 70 to 900 — some of the signs that the museum is on the right track, Fitzpatrick said.
He took over the museum in July 2006, the same week that a storm tore off parts of its roof and its previous director stepped down. A July 19, 2006, headline in The Roanoke Times read, "Museum in crisis, leader says."
Since then the museum has been on a slow march to recovery, paying off its debt, reaching out to other museums and historical groups that it previously declined to work with, and demonstrating that it plans to become something more than a storehouse for rusting train cars.
"Unless we had some significant help, we were not going to make it as a museum," Fitzpatrick said. Showing the museum wanted to improve and involve the community were important first steps. "This museum had had a tough time for a long time. People would not automatically have faith in us."
In 2008, Norfolk Southern offered a challenge grant to the museum of $1 million, on the condition that the museum raise $1 million through fundraising and another $1 million through local government support. Given the economic climate, the museum has not been able to fulfill the government portion of that condition, but Norfolk Southern has still matched its fundraising efforts. The museum has raised more than $600,000.
The museum also received two $100,000 grants from a two-year program run by the Taubman Foundation that assisted arts and cultural organizations in the Roanoke region, and Norfolk Southern matched those funds.
Norfolk Southern has also donated funds to the museum for operations. This allowed the museum to hire Ferguson and McGuire, who has organized popular special events such as Roanoke Rail Fest.
"One of my missions here is to make sure that what I do has long-term effects," McGuire said.
To meet the requirements of the Norfolk Southern challenge, the museum sought extensive public feedback through surveys in 2010 and consulted about redesigning its exhibits with William Withuhn, a Smithsonian curator emeritus who specializes in the history of transportation. He told museum staff they were in the best position to tell the story of the rail history of Roanoke but weren't yet doing so.
As a result of priorities established by the surveys, the museum has been renovating and repainting the cars in its railyard. Of the museum's 40 rail cars and engines, 17 have been or are in the process of being restored.
Advance Auto Parts and Star City Motor Madness also sponsored renovation of the auto gallery, which made it possible to be rented out for events.
The aviation gallery represents the museum's most thorough answer yet to the feedback it's received.
The money isn't there yet to redo the other exhibits, and the museum's current budget of $1.1 million isn't guaranteed to be funded next year.
"Each one of those add-ons has come with the acknowledgement that we're adding them with a little bit of risk," Fitzpatrick said. For example, the museum can no longer count on the Taubman Foundation funds that have paid McGuire's salary.
Fitzpatrick said he intends to ask Roanoke City Council to consider granting the museum $100,000 a year for 10 years, an arrangement similar to what the city gives the Taubman Museum of Art in exchange for free admission for public school students. The council has not yet considered the request.
Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, while not commenting specifically on the likelihood of the museum's request being granted, said council in the future may need to consider giving funds to local arts and culture organizations to help with operations, instead of helping with capital projects as the city's done in the past. "What we've got here, we want to keep here, and that means we've got to sustain it."
"There's so much that we have the opportunity to do. It's just a matter of the community believing in us," Fitzpatrick said. "We don't have the money to go fast. We're trying to do this one step at a time."