Amid Continuing Controversy Smithsonian Opens Annex of Air and Space Museum

Bruce Craig, February 2004

On December 15, 2003, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Air and Space Museum's new annex near Washington Dulles International Airport, opened to the public. Some 82 warplanes, spyplanes, gliders, helicopters, an Air France Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Enterprise, as well as the Enola Gay (the World War II plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), are among the flying machines on display in a 10-story high, 294,000-square-foot aviation exhibit hangar. The $310-million museum complex is the largest air and space exhibition site in the world.

Although the airplanes and the space shuttle are among the biggest and most striking displays, the museum also holds over 1,000 smaller bits of aviation history including Amelia Earhart's flight suit, Charles Lindbergh's personal effects and a few of his flight instruments. Approximately 80 percent of the collection still remains in storage. Eventually, many more objects will be displayed when the main 245,000 square foot aviation hall is completed. Among the over 7,000 opening day visitors were a group of about 50 protesters, including a half-dozen elderly, grief-stricken atomic bomb survivors from Japan. The protesters expressed dismay that information on the effects of the bomb dropped by the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, is not included in the exhibit label that explains the significance of the superfortress. Two protesters were arrested after tossing a bottle of red paint (meant to symbolize blood) at the Enola Gay (the bottle dented the plane and then crashed to the floor).

Museum officials dismissed these protests and earlier appeals by historians and others who took the Smithsonian to task for failing to present the contextual significance of the aircraft in relation to its primary significance (see Debbie Ann Doyle, "Historians Protest New Enola Gay Exhibit," Perspectives, December 2003). The museum's director, John R. Dailey, a retired Marine Corps general, stated that the Enola Gay labeling is consistent with explanatory labels for other exhibits: "we're going to present the aircraft primarily in terms of its technical capabilities and leave the interpretation as to how it was used to the visitor." According to museum officials, the text "does not glorify or vilify the role this aircraft played in history," rather it conforms to the museum's congressionally mandated mission to "memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight."

Nevertheless, the effort to raise public awareness over the exhibit controversy continues. On December 13, 2003, for example, the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy (http://www.enola-gay.org) and American University's Nuclear Studies Institute conducted a one day conference, "Hiroshima in the 21st Century: Will We Repeat the Past?" The conference focused on the impacts of the atomic bomb, lessons that history provides in preventing nuclear war, and the nature of the continuing current global nuclear threat.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.