The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum maintains the world’s largest and most significant collection of aviation and space artifacts, encompassing all aspects of human flight, as well as related works of art and archival materials. Comprised of its original and main location on the National Mall in Washington DC, and its second site in Virginia, it is the most visited museum in the US. It is also a preeminent planet research site through its Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.
The first phase of a 7 year-long extensive renovation project of the flagship building in DC, which started in 2018, was completed in October 2022. It revealed a complete makeover of the west wing, featuring 8 new and redesigned exhibitions with hundreds of new artefacts presented in inspiring new settings. Some of the highlights of the collection include the Wright Flyer and the Wright bicycle, the Curiosity Rover – the Mars Science Laboratory – which landed on the red planet in 2012, and the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia.
Meyvaert provided more than 120 showcases for this ambitious and complex project, spread throughout 8 exhibit galleries, each with a unique design approach following the storyline of the museum, with distinctive features allowing for a perfect alliance with their newly revamped space.
Besides the wide variety of the designs, the project presented some other interesting challenges. To begin with, the heavy interfaces with AV as well as the internals and adjacent constructions, provided by others, all had to be accounted for in our drawings to allow for a seamless integration.
Next, the already rather large scope also included the design and installation of 6 special and very large cases, some of which had to be assembled around the artefacts due to their massive size. They also required impeccable coordination from a project planning perspective as they each could only be installed on very specific dates due to the numbers and qualifications of staff involved in this process.
Finally, the Covid Pandemic hit right around the time our installation teams were being sent on site, hence adding another level of difficulty and the need to be creative in finding work-around solutions.
To deal with the many different designs and the phased installation schedule, the approach chosen was to engineer and fabricate the cases per typology, but then ship and install per gallery. Additionally, throughout workshops with the project team, a risk prevention plan was put in place to manage the pandemic uncertainties around shipping and access of our teams on site. This flexible approach resulted in a successful and smooth completion of each gallery on schedule.
The structure of the 6 special cases, built around unique artefacts of very large dimensions – such as the Apollo 11 command module – was calculated by a structural engineer to guarantee their rigidity. Some cases also included large mounts designed and built by the museum to be integrated in the case structure, and requiring incorporation of their 3D files into our drawings to ensure perfect fitting. In addition, all interfaces with other trades such as AV, lights, mounts, graphics, build-ups, removable panels, etc., were also included.
For a flawless fit and blending with the surrounding spaces, we provided case components and fillers where needed, to establish a flexible connection between the casework and the adjacent structures. In terms of materials, corian was largely used across the galleries and was glued on site to the cases’ glass panels, in such a way that they exactly match all lines of the contiguous structures.
© Smithsonian, photo by Jim Preston
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Aviation & Space Museum
Haley Sharpe Design
Exhibit Fabricator: Design and Production Inc
© Smithsonian, photo by Jim Preston