In Search of Coherence
Some thoughts on providing context, primarily in aviation museums


I've spent a lot of time in air museums, from the Musee de l'Air at Le Bourget down to the West Coast Museum of Flying (consisting mainly of one magnificent P-40 in a small hangar on Vancouver Island). Their layout is remarkably standardized throughout the whole range. In the center you have the airplanes, the main attraction; around the room are displays with text and pictures, and lesser artifacts; and, generally over by the walls, there are display cases filled with model airplanes.

I see visitors looking at the models who, judging by appearances at least, are not modellers or aviation buffs. And I wonder: What are they thinking? What are they taking away from looking at the models? How does this fit with their museum experience? Will they even remember this?

And often, the way the models are selected and displayed, I'm also forced to wonder: What do the people who run this place THINK the visitors are getting out of this?

Most often, the display consists of a large bunch of well made, more or less thematically related models sitting together with small cards giving technical and operational details that are meaningless to normal people and nearly meaningless even to buffs. Assuming that this trivia is ignored or immediately forgotten, the most profound lesson that a visitor can be getting from the display is that airplanes came in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Some of the more homogenous displays even fail to convey that!

In this note, prompted by the article, "Modeling for the Museum" on the Museum Modeler web site, I will develop the themes that: (1) air museums, and related museums such as armor, automotive, and maritime museums, present special problems with regard to the "coherence" of their displays and of the resulting museum experience; (2) scale models can be either a part of the problem or part of the solution; and that (3) as typically used, the models are part of the problem. I also hope to suggest directions for making models part of the solution.

In order to set up an ideal for the role of models in air museums, it's necessary to check out some other kinds of museums where scale models are used really intelligently. Last week I walked through some halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York. In many of the halls dealing with ancient civilizations, it is difficult to imagine the exhibit without models. Certainly one cannot avoid the models nor comprehend the other displays without them. In the hall of Asian Civilizations, the models range from a roughly 1/8 diorama of a Siberian whale hunting party to a window-sized forced-perspective model of 15th-century Beijing. Every model has a lengthy explanation next to it, often almost the size of the model itself, explaining every feature of the model, often aided by a line drawing or plan of the model.

The descriptions contain meaningful information -- not technical minutae about the specific thing portrayed by the model, but information about how that TYPE of thing figured in how people lived. Most impressive of all, there is utterly no distinction between the model and any other artifact or display in weaving the linear story of the history of a civilization. You walk through the hall and the next thing you see could be an artifact, a model, or an audiovisual display -- whatever the exhibit designer found necessary, appropriate, or available to make the next point he wanted to make in a coherent narrative.

If you've been to a few good museums of this kind, you'll understand my point that there isn't an aviation museum in the world that uses scale models as an integral part of their presentations to this extent. Notwithstanding some great individual displays, air museums just don't play in the same league in terms of exhibit design and coherence.

What air museums need to do with their models (assuming they care about having coherent exhibits, which I address below) goes beyond the generally good advice in "Modeling for the Museum," which mainly discusses how to draw and hold attention to models. They need to explore the assumptions behind that article, and think not about how to do typical air museum model display well, but how to use models well by the standards of more sophisticated museums. In so doing, the few bits of bad advice in "Modeling for the Museum" will be revealed -- such as the notion that a museum's entire collection should be to the same scale, which is silly when you consider the myriad uses to which models can and should be put within a museum.

The starting point for the analysis should naturally be a serious examination of the museum's instructional mission: What story, period, or aspect of history the museum (or an exhibit within the museum) seeks to portray. Right away, many air museums get into trouble because, as a group, they tend to have very poorly articulated instructional purpose. Often this is for good reason. For example, the real purpose for the existence of many private air museums is to show off the proprietors' collection of aircraft or other artifacts, which they collect mainly for their own private purposes, and not incidentally to create substantial tax deductions and a modest revenue stream to help offset the proprietor's costs of acquiring and maintaing his artifacts. When the museum's avowed educational purpose is more or less a "front" for these underlying goals, it's understandable that not much attention is given to developing a coherent educational strategy.

Many of the larger and better private air museums have, of course, transcended this orientation and take their public missions quite seriously. But still, acquisition priorities and resource allocation are often driven by the private interests of the proprietors, making the acquisition of a representative collection and the creation of coherent displays distinctly secondary priorities. Further, in "flying" museums, display arrangements are often decisively influenced by the imperatives of operating and maintaining the exhibits.

Articulation of detailed educational goals can also be hampered by political considerations. The most compelling historical narratives are those with a point of view, and points of view carry the risk of offending someone. The controversy a few years ago over the NASM's presentation of the Enola Gay highlighted an extreme example, in which the museum found that any serious attempt to present a narrative of the first atomic bombing (whichever viewpoint was "favored") threatened the fragile political consensus on which the museum depends for support. While no other air museum has such a high profile, all must weigh the risk of putting forward a viewpoint that might alienate some constituency such as trustees, local government officials, sponsors, or visitors.

Most air museums end up doing what the NASM explicitly decided to do: reduce explanatory displays to the minimum and pretend that artifacts "speak for themselves." Actually, of course, artifacts don't speak for themselves, and such an abdication of a museum's public educational role merely exposes visitors to a montage of images that fit easily into whatever prejudices and knowledge (or lack thereof) they bring to the museum.

These coherence problems obviously go far beyond scale models, and there is little that scale models can do, by themselves, to address most of them. Many air museums, however, have the will and the resources to move toward greater coherence in their exhibits, and many historical narratives are non-controversial. Unfortunately, museums' use of models often frustrates this aim rather than aiding it.

With everything other than the aircraft and their needs being a secondary spending priority at many museums, both public and private, museums are easily seduced by a supply- driven, rather than demand-driven, approach to aquiring models for display. Customized displays oriented to a coherent educational mission can be costly, whereas there is an abundance of hobbyists eager to have their personal collections displayed in a high-profile, high-prestige forum such as a museum, at little cost to the museum. Taking advantage of this supply of models makes the museum's model collection subject to all the factors that influence what modellers build, e.g., the availability of kits, favored scales, the modeller's subject preferences, etc. Most of these factors tend to impact negatively on the appropriateness of the models for museum display in general, let alone their fit with a particular exhibit theme.

More importantly, accepting the models that are readily available from hobbyists short-circuits the questions that a museum should ask when considering any model display:

1. What is the theme of the exhibit in which the model display is to be included?

2. Every individual display (e.g., a case of models) should have a point -- not a loose theme, but a take-away thought or lesson for the visitor. What point, within the theme of the exhibit, do I want to make with this display?

3. Is this point best made with scale models or not and, if so, how?

With attention to these questions lacking, we often get the worst-case model display that we see in many air museums: A glass case of idiosyncratically selected models, in an inappropriate (usually too-small) scale, with little or no explanation of what each one is, and no thematic connection to the surrounding exhibits. In essence it is a "vanity" collection of a modeller's work, ironically mirroring the full-scale museums that are vanity displays of an airplane collector's prizes.

So much for criticism. How about some concrete, constructive advice on making models in museums more worthwhile?

At the outset let's assume that, realistically, most air museums are not going to transform themselves overnight into anything like the New York Museum of Natural History. Their exhibits will tend to gravitate not around coherent themes, but around artifacts, specifically full-size airplanes that happen to be in the collection. Even in this paradigm, we can think about how scale models might be used to create a mini-theme around the display of a single aircraft. One way to do this is to ask: If you were a normal visitor standing and looking at this aircraft, what questions -- whether or not they would naturally occur to you -- would you find interesting?

(By the way, it is a lot better if this question is answered by REAL normal people instead of museum staff or aviation buffs trying to think like normal people. Unfortunately, there has been little or no systematic research in air museums on how visitors react to the exhibits. Several years ago, the Smithsonian sent an RFP out to academic circles soliciting a social science researcher to conduct such a survey at the NASM. I was an enthusiastic applicant but, being then only a Ph.D. candidate, I was not surprised that they were uninterested in my application. I never found out who got the contract or what research was eventually done, and eventually left the social science field. But my research skills, credentials, and connections are still pretty good, if anyone representing a museum is interested.)

Let's suppose, for the sake of an example, that the real artifact around which you want to arrange your display is a P-51D Mustang. Here are some possible model-based displays, with the questions that they presume to answer:

BAD: A display case containing a dozen 1/48 Mustang models, of assorted variants, with a variety of different paint schemes. The point that this conveys to the viewer is that P-51 Mustangs came in different colors. The observant viewer who jams her nose up against the class may also notice the subtle differences between versions. How many people who look at a Mustang in a museum think, "Gee, I wonder if this airplane came in several superficially different versions and was painted in different colors?" Not many would think such a question important if it occurred to them. And if they did, and if the obvious answer somehow escaped them, the question could be answered as effectively and more efficiently by a few profiles from a reference book, framed in a simple wall display.

BETTER: A display case containing models of a P-51, a P-47, and a P-38, in at least 1/32 scale (preferably 1/24 or 1/16), with accompanying text stating that these were the three major USAAF types in service in Europe in 1944, how many of each were used, what for, and why, in terms of their relative capabilities, displayed in some graphic method such as bar charts. Here the assumed question about the real Mustang is, "Was this the only American fighter used in the war? How did it complement the other types used?" An important tip for this display would be that there should be only ONE model of each type, to avoid confusing visitors as to the number of types used, and that the model P-51 should resemble as closely as possible (markings, etc.) the real P- 51 on display, so that the viewer can easily locate the artifact within the display.

ALSO BETTER: The same display as above, but with an Fw 190 and Bf 109G added. Now the implicit question is, "What were the other participants, besides this Mustang, in the European air war, and what were their relative capabilities?" Again, the information should be provided in a graphically attractive format that receives at least as much thought as the models. Note that in this set of five models, we're getting close to the maximum number of models that a viewer should be expected to make sense of in one display. No matter how entertaining your accompanying text, nobody wants to read enough, at one display case, to figure out or even glance at models of every U.S. aircraft in the European theater. Also, the larger the number of aircraft (as well as the smaller the scale), the more the SIMILARITIES between the aircraft will stand out more than the differences, defeating the intention to show the variety of types.

MUCH BETTER: A cutaway model of the P-51D, at least 1/24 but preferably larger. The location and function of significant components can be identified either by labels on the model or by a labelled diagram of the model. Sub- displays, with or without the use of enlarged models representing components of the main model, can describe tricky concepts that are deemed important, such as stressed- skin construction or how a two-stage supercharger works. This answers the question: "How is this damn thing put together?" Questions like this are most important if the overall theme of the exhibit or museum is oriented toward the development of aviation technology, rather than, e.g., the military history. It will make the most sense if something similar is done for most or all of the other actual aircraft in the museum.

ALSO MUCH BETTER: A 1/72 diorama of part an 8th Air Force airfield, showing P-51s at dispersal, with accurate (preferably cutaway) representations of the buildings (living quarters, mess, maintenance areas, communications center, defensive emplacements) and terrain, populated by figures engaged in typical activities with appropriate equipment. A large, labelled plan of the diorama explains what everything is and what everybody is doing. This starts to answer what I presume to be the most central question of all: "How did people relate to this artifact when it was in use? What physical and social structures was it a part of?" Helping viewers answer this question is particularly important in air museums, where the central coherence problem has its roots in the presentation of artifacts taken out of context. It's also an especially compelling answer in that it transforms the exhibit (or, better still, the whole museum) into something about people, rather than about machines. (People, of course, meaning not Lindbergh, Yeager, and Richtofen, but real, mortal people to whom museum visitors can relate.)

These are just examples, and in some air museums stuff like this is in place already. Model displays having some reasonable integration with the principal artifacts (the aircraft) are the first important, small step toward the next goal, which few, if any, air museums achieve: linking different artifacts and other displays into some semblance of a coherent presentation. Here, scale models can assume a greater role than as "supporting" exhibits. If placed on an equal footing with artifacts and other materials, they can legitimately fill gaps in the historical narrative that a museum is trying to tell, or illustrate dimensions of the story that would be impossible to cover with artifacts, even if the latter were available. Air museums have a long way to go in the process of thinking about their displays before they're ready to use models in this way. And, to fulfill this role, models for museums will have to become more ambitious -- to deserve a place in a good museum, a model has to be saying or teaching something, not just being a nice replica. But, who knows, maybe thinking about what scale models can do -- and understanding that exhibits don't have to be driven by the collection of aircraft on hand -- will help speed air museums on a path to maturity.

August T. Horvath, Ph.D., J.D.


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