Week 1: College Park Aviation Museum


Museum Mission: The goal of the College Park Aviation Museum is to research, preserve, interpret and promote the history and collections of the College Park Airport, and early World War I-era aviation in general, by operating the site as a public museum providing educational exhibits, special events, programs and tours for the general public, school-age community and tourists.

I used to live just blocks from the College Park Aviation Museum, and yet it was not until yesterday that I visited. My visit began as a walk toward the building with a view of small airplanes along the way (the College Park Airport is “the world’s oldest continuously operating airport,” according to CPAM’s website). After walking through the lobby and past the restrooms, the visitor enters the exhibit space – and receives a greeting from a talking, moving mannequin of Wilbur Wright. Wright talks of the important role he and his brother Orville played in aviation history, along with other personalities they worked with at the College Park Airport; as I listened to him speak, I looked at artifacts, replicas, and photographs related to these individuals.

A little while later, when the fire alarm went off, I first thought it was another exhibit feature: more lifelike noises that begin according to a motion sensor! It turned out to be an actual alarm (albeit a false one: an air conditioning non-emergency had tipped it off, but luckily, nothing was wrong). The museum’s employees, volunteers, and visitors evacuated and gathered outside the museum, where the people affiliated with the museum were kind and apologetic. Just a couple of minutes later, we were back inside.

Throughout the museum were activities for children. In an exhibit on airmail (which brought back fond National Postal Museum memories), kids could decorate their own blank postcards, purchase stamps in the gift shop, and drop the postcards in a box to be delivered by airmail. The art supplies included aviation-related rubbings and crayons.

Elsewhere in the museum were pilot dress-up clothes, airplane puzzles and toys, replicas that could be physically manipulated, blocks for building your own airplane parts, arcade-style video games, children’s books, and a small plane with a sign inviting visitors to step inside and pretend to be a pilot. (Judging by the size of the plane, I assumed the invitation was for little visitors, and I did not try it out.)

The children’s activities were not sequestered off in a separate room, but instead were integrated throughout the museum. Toys, costumes, and art supplies were presented right next to the real thing. Though I did not see any children during my visit (on a weekday right after the school year had started), I could imagine little ones playing and building while their grown-ups stood a few feet away reading wall text.

Children's Activities: puzzles, art supplies, hand sanitizer.

I hope that visitors do take advantage of opportunities not just for side-by-side learning, but also for conversation relating play to museum objects. How does the helicopter you built work? Which blade on the wall is most similar to the blade you’re holding? What would it have been like to be the first pilot? Look, you’re dressed just like the man in this photograph!

The museum also displays a number of small planes, which can be viewed from the lower and upper levels, and includes an outdoor balcony from which visitors can watch planes take off and land at the College Park Airport.

Close-up of part of a plane

The museum’s website emphasizes the child-friendly atmosphere I noticed, with descriptions of the activities always available as well as special programming (birthday parties, Scout programs, etc.). If you click on the homepage, you’ll see pictures primarily of engaged children. Though no children were present during my visit, I can easily imagine their squeals along with the voice of mannequin Wilbur Wright.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Photos, Weekly Museum Visits Part II and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Week 1: College Park Aviation Museum

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I still shudder somewhat when I come across automatons in museums. I can’t think of exactly how I would try and make material available when there isn’t the capacity for staff/volunteers to greet and orient visitors, but I’ve worked around too many automatons (my favorite being Stumpy the no-legged pirate at Roanoke Island) and they are creepy.

    • disciullo says:

      There were people at the desk in the lobby who greeted me (and took my admission payment). I enjoyed Wilbur for the novelty of it since I haven’t been around others. And I started imagining a version of the US Capitol in which all the statues come alive…

      I think CPAM didn’t overdo it. They just had the one automaton and it was one of many tools used, and Wilbur Wright is important enough to warrant it. If the whole museum were full of talking mannequins, it would feel too much like an amusement park.

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