Go for Launch! Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Reopens

Image: Destination Moon 2 - (Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum -Jim Preston)

Following an extensive redevelopment project, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum reopens to the public on Friday 14th October. Visitors will be able to explore eight fully renovated galleries in the west wing of its building in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Haley Sharpe Design Limited (hsd) was commissioned as interpretive designers for these galleries, which exhibit momentous themes covering everything from early flight and moon landings to the exploration of our solar system and human quest for speed.

Chris Browne (John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Museum) comments: “We are thrilled to finally unveil the first part of the newly renovated museum. Visitors will have a more modern and engaging experience, visiting favourite icons as well as many new artifacts never before seen at the museum in D.C. We hope each visitor will see themselves in these exhibitions and that young people will be inspired by all that is possible in aviation and space exploration.”

Working with the Smithsonian’s project leaders, curators, learning and collections teams over a 7-year engagement, hsd mapped out a revitalised visitor journey through the careful design of each gallery. NASM’s stunning collections are freshly displayed, hundreds of new artefacts are featured, and exhibits are accompanied by a dynamic mix of immersive media.

Gary Walker-Kerr, hsd Managing Director confirms: “It has been an honour and privilege for hsd to have been the creative catalyst for the transformation of a totally new look for one of the most visited museums in North America.”

Gallery Highlights

Visitors to NASM will enjoy well-loved artefacts presented in new, more dynamic, and contextualised settings. In the same gallery as the Apollo 11 command module, Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacesuit and the capsule he flew, Mercury Freedom 7, will be on display in Washington for the first time since 2015. Likewise, the original 1903 Wright Flyer is placed in a striking new environment that better tells the story of the invention of flying and its impact on world history.

hsd partnered with Immersive International to deliver many of the large-scale AV elements across the revitalised galleries, including for the historic Wright Flyer. Situated on a high-level convex curve suspended above this iconic object, this seamless display of object and contextual media is the centrepiece of the gallery.

Destination Moon

Building on the Museum’s unrivalled collection of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo objects, Destination Moon is a blockbuster exhibit. The gallery shows how an extraordinary combination of motivations, resources, and technologies made it possible for humans to walk on the Moon—and how and why humankind is going back there today.

A highlight within the gallery is undoubtedly the iconic spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 Mission. The suit was designed to allow full mobility and to be worn for up to 115 hours, providing a life sustaining and protective system. In 1971, NASA transferred the spacesuit to the National Air and Space Museum.

Purposefully, the spacesuit was situated in a prominent location within the gallery. It was important to enable visitors to see the suit from several viewpoints and to give visitors the chance to really get up close, observing the intricate details and marks on the suit’s surface.

The hsd team worked with NASM curators and conservators to design a showcase that was aesthetically appropriate for this hugely significant object whilst also incorporating a technical compartment for conservation equipment vital for the artefact’s preservation.

Through accompanying graphic interpretation, the new display better contextualises the spacesuit, and includes a large-scale rendering of the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin (captured by Armstrong), as well as displaying an X-Ray scan of the suit (produced originally as part of the conservation process) on the rear of the case glass.

Paul Caygill, Exhibit Designer for Destination Moon, writes: “It has been incredibly exciting to play a part in the redisplay of such an iconic, globally significant piece of space history. Working with the Smithsonian, our team was part of a complex and detailed process to ensure world-leading conservation could be combined with innovative showcase technology, creating an evocative new display for visitors to the Museum to enjoy.”

Nation of Speed

This is a fast-paced gallery showcasing the human inventiveness and technologies which enabled people to travel with ever greater speed. Featuring iconic vehicles from Sonic Wind No. 1 Rocket Sled to the Sharp DR 90 Nemesis, Nation of Speed paints a portrait of human ingenuity — the technology developed to propel people faster and faster— and explores how the pursuit of speed has shaped American culture and national identity. The gallery was developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Jack Biddle, Exhibit Designer for the Speciality Galleries, notes: “Designing Nation of Speed will always be a career highlight for me. Being a motorsports fan, it has been a privilege to work on the creation of this dramatic exhibit, particularly bringing the STP Hawk No. 2 Indianapolis 500 Racer and Indy 500 speedway story to life within the gallery.”

One World Connected

Collaborative work amongst NASM, hsd and several media specialists (Cortina Productions and Immersive International) produced the stunning Globe installation in the One World Connected Gallery. This dramatic ten-foot projection-mapped recreation of the Earth demonstrates our connectivity as a planet through navigation tracking and communication devices. Engaging with the experience, visitors gather around interactive kiosks positioned around the Globe, triggering data-driven visualisations revealing global phenomena such as international flight paths, human population centres and even animal migration routes.

Across all galleries, NASM was keen to embrace a step-change in the way digital media is integrated into the exhibitions– providing more dramatic, responsive, and layered AV interventions to engage visitors with the Museum’s storylines and collections.

Jan Faulkner, hsd Creative Lead (Media) observes:

“In today’s world, technology and visual triggers are at the heart of cultural engagement. Through integrated scenography, hsd has supported NASM to create gallery environments which embed ambitious yet robust media interventions. Combined with dramatic lighting effects and evocative audio soundscapes, these environments become critical spaces for visitors to engage with complex yet inspiring scientific content, helping them make sense of the world, and universe, around them.”

More to Come

Visitors can explore the newly completed galleries using a free timed-entry pass which can be booked via the website. In the meantime, the Museum continues to redesign all 23 exhibitions and presentation spaces, as well as completing the refacing of the exterior cladding, replacing outdated mechanical systems and other repairs and improvements. The entire project is expected to complete in 2025.