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Contextual vs Stand Alone Exhibits

Updated on March 7, 2016

Context vs Stand Alone

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A Hellcat as part of a World War II display at the Marine Corps Museum. (2007)A Hellcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center June, 2010.A Dauntless on display at the Marine Corps Air Ground Museum at Quantico, VA, circa 1990.  This museum has now been replaced by the Marine Corps Museum, which is outside the base. Part of the World War I exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum.  The gruesome picture on the right is probably a fake.Poster boards at the National Air & Space Museum's World War I exhibit.A "baka" bomb at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA.A huey helicopter at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA.An F-14 Tomcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center circa 2005.A bi-plane at the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, VA.  An unobstructed view of this aircraft is difficult.An A-4 Skyhawk in the Naval Aviation Gallery at the National Air & Space Museum.An SR-71 at the Udvar- Hazy Center, Dulles, VA.  Patrons can get a good view of any part of this aircraft, except the underside.
A Hellcat as part of a World War II display at the Marine Corps Museum. (2007)
A Hellcat as part of a World War II display at the Marine Corps Museum. (2007) | Source
A Hellcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center June, 2010.
A Hellcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center June, 2010. | Source
A Dauntless on display at the Marine Corps Air Ground Museum at Quantico, VA, circa 1990.  This museum has now been replaced by the Marine Corps Museum, which is outside the base.
A Dauntless on display at the Marine Corps Air Ground Museum at Quantico, VA, circa 1990. This museum has now been replaced by the Marine Corps Museum, which is outside the base. | Source
Part of the World War I exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum.  The gruesome picture on the right is probably a fake.
Part of the World War I exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum. The gruesome picture on the right is probably a fake. | Source
Poster boards at the National Air & Space Museum's World War I exhibit.
Poster boards at the National Air & Space Museum's World War I exhibit. | Source
A "baka" bomb at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA.
A "baka" bomb at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA. | Source
A huey helicopter at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA.
A huey helicopter at the Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, VA. | Source
An F-14 Tomcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center circa 2005.
An F-14 Tomcat on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center circa 2005. | Source
A bi-plane at the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, VA.  An unobstructed view of this aircraft is difficult.
A bi-plane at the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, VA. An unobstructed view of this aircraft is difficult. | Source
An A-4 Skyhawk in the Naval Aviation Gallery at the National Air & Space Museum.
An A-4 Skyhawk in the Naval Aviation Gallery at the National Air & Space Museum. | Source
An SR-71 at the Udvar- Hazy Center, Dulles, VA.  Patrons can get a good view of any part of this aircraft, except the underside.
An SR-71 at the Udvar- Hazy Center, Dulles, VA. Patrons can get a good view of any part of this aircraft, except the underside. | Source

Contextual vs. Stand Alone

Should museum aircraft be displayed as part of a contextual exhibit or should they simply be displayed with a plaque identifying them and giving some technical and other factual information about them? The contextual exhibit has the advantage of putting the aircraft in a historical context. This gives museum patrons a better chance to appreciate the aircraft’s place in history. The disadvantage is the aircraft can easily become a piece of a life size diorama. The aircraft can become an accessory to the exhibit rather than an important part of an exhibit. The end result can be an exhibit that portrays the aircraft as insignificant.

Just displaying the aircraft with a plaque has the advantage of giving the patron the ability to get a good view, and photograph, of the aircraft. It also has the advantage of not cluttering up viewing and display space. This way more patrons can get unobstructed views of more aircraft. This is especially important if the aircraft is unique or one of a few remaining examples of it. A disadvantage is patrons who don’t know anything about the aircraft aren’t given a reason to be interested in the aircraft. Displaying an aircraft without a context is also a missed opportunity to confirm or deny what many believe about the particular aircraft. Without context an aircraft that had a significant role in history is indistinguishable from an aircraft that is historically insignificant.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
An F-4U Corsair at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011An AV-8 Harrier at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011.An A-4 Skyhawk in the Vietnam Gallery at the Marine Corps Museum.
An F-4U Corsair at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011
An F-4U Corsair at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011 | Source
An AV-8 Harrier at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011.
An AV-8 Harrier at the Marine Corps Museum, June 17, 2011. | Source
An A-4 Skyhawk in the Vietnam Gallery at the Marine Corps Museum.
An A-4 Skyhawk in the Vietnam Gallery at the Marine Corps Museum. | Source

Examples of Contextual Displays

In the National Museum of the Marine Corps aircraft are often suspended from the ceiling in such a way it’s difficult to get a good view of the aircraft without going to multiple galleries, if a good view is available at all. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to treat the aircraft as anything more than a piece of a 3-dimentional collage.

The “Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air” exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum is an impressive exhibit but seems to brush aside aviation in World War I. The exhibit’s entrance has a display of pop culture references to World War I’s top scoring ace Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen. Patrons are drawn to a movie theater that shows film clips from postwar movies about World War I air combat. The exhibit goes to great lengths to tell patrons pop culture portrayals of World War I air combat aren’t reality.

When the Issue Came to a Head

In 1994 the National Air & Space Museum planned to display parts of the newly restored Enola Gay in a contextual exhibit about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum soon found itself in a controversy between those who wanted an exhibit to show the horrors of the atomic bombings and those who wanted to show the atomic bombings as necessary to end World War II. The latter group seemed to prefer no exhibit at all. The museum pushed forward with plans for a contextual exhibit. They had a tenuous relationship with the American Legion. This relationship ended when Dr. Martin Harwit, the National Air & Space Museum’s Director, changed the casualty estimates for the planned invasion of Japan from 250,000 to 63,000. The American Legion considered the change a breach of faith and called for the exhibit’s cancelation. Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman canceled the planed exhibit on January 30, 1995. Dr. Harwit resigned soon after. The attempt to show a contextual exhibit cost the Smithsonian over $450,000. The National Air & Space Museum opened an Enola Gay exhibit on June 28, 1995. This exhibit had very little context.

Contextual vs Stand Alone

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image
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      Robert Sacchi 15 months ago

      The Smithsonian went on a PC kick in the '90s. When that extended to the Air & Space museum the Air & Space curators ruffled a lot of feathers. The issue came to a head with their proposed Enola Gay exhibit.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 15 months ago from Houston, Texas

      I would vote for the historical context being attached to make it more interesting. That is assuming that history is not revised to suit the current political climate of the day. That would be the main problem. As to obstructing the view...I guess there is no perfect answer.