The design of SFO's aviation library and museum was inspired by this.
Next time you find yourself waiting for a delayed flight at San Francisco International Airport, relax and take a look around. There's a lot to see, because the airport is also a museum. Not in the metaphorical or historical sense; SFO is quite literally a museum, with a fulltime staff of curators and full accreditation from the American Association of Museums, the leading organization for museum administrators in the United States. Depending on how you count eyeballs, it may even be the busiest museum in the country. Consider: The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC attracted almost 6 million visitors in 2006, but more than 33 million passengers passed through SFO.
The exhibits at the airport fall into two basic categories: displays of commercial airline history and collections of pop culture artifacts. Telstar Logistics recently went on a backstage tour of the museum's commercial aviation collection, and we can confidently say that it's pure nirvana for airline memorabilia geeks. But we'll get to that in a moment.
The museum staff at the airport knows their audience — first and foremost, visitors to SFO are airline passengers, not museum-goers, so the exhibits are curated to capture the attention of people who trying to go someplace else. Stroll down SFO's United Airlines concourse this summer, for example, and you'll find an extensive collection of kitsch pottery manufactured during the 1930s on Catalina Island, off the California coast. In the lobby of Terminal 1, there's a wonderful exhibit of vintage flight attendant uniform caps on display right now that shows how styles evolved from the early, nursing-derived caps of the 1930s to the mod headwear from the 1960s and 1970s:
These are the kinds of exhibits that would look right at home in a museum like the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, and the curation and display is top notch. But it all happens to happen inside America's tenth-busiest airport.
John Hill, the curator-in-charge of the aviation collection, told us that while SFO's pop culture exhibits usually use materials loaned from outside collections, the commercial aviation displays are often built around items kept as part of airport's permanent collection. And to prove the point, he took Telstar Logistics on a tour of the museum's aviation collection storage warehouse, tucked away in a remote corner of the airport.
For curatorial reasons, our photo access inside the SFO museum warehouse was limited. But suffice to say, what we saw was impressive. We peeked inside giant drawers stuffed with neatly-organized collections of airline pilot hat pins:
We drooled at drawers filled with miniature scale model airliners:
We pondered the home-decor possibilities of a vintage air travel insurance vending machine that looked ready for service:
We coveted a leather flight bag that was used by crews aboard Pan American Airways China Clipper Flying Boats during the 1930s:
And we fantasized about pouring ourselves a stiff drink with the museum's collection of airline-issue cocktail swizzle sticks:
What we can't show you, however, are the row after row of boxes containing vintage airline crew uniforms. Or the massive wall of storage cubes, measuring at least 30 feet wide and 15 feet tall. Inside each cube was a vintage airline travel bag, like the kind that were given to passengers in the days before deregulation. There were dozens of the bags, colorful row after colorful row, and together they looked like some sort of jet set design study for fashion coolhunters. It was amazing, but no photos, alas.
That's what we saw like behind the scenes. Publicly, there are dozens of exhibits scattered throughout SFO at any given time, but if you really want to unwind, meander over to the International Terminal, where you'll find a dedicated aviation library and museum that's set in a room designed to replicate the look of San Francisco's original terminal building, circa 1937. Set up camp in one of the hushed carrels, grab something to read, and try not to forget that you eventually need to catch a flight.
Backstage at the SFO Airport Museum (Flickr photoset by Telstar Logistics)
San Francisco Airport Museums (Official website)
Hats Off! Women’s Airline Uniform Caps (Official SFO museum exhibition photos. Recommended!)
(IMAGES: All photos by Telstar Logistics)