Should museum aircraft be displayed as part of contextual exhibit or should they simply be displayed with a plaque identifying them and giving some technical and other factual information about them? The contextual exhibit has the advantage of putting the aircraft in a historical context. This gives museum patrons a better chance to appreciate the aircraft’s place in history. The disadvantage is the aircraft can easily become a piece of a life size diorama. The aircraft can become an accessory to the exhibit rather than an important part of an exhibit. The end result can be an exhibit that portrays the aircraft as insignificant.
In the National Museum of the Marine Corps aircraft are often suspended from the ceiling in such a way it’s difficult to get a good view of the aircraft without going to multiple galleries, if a good view is available at all. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to treat the aircraft as anything more than a piece of a 3-dimentional collage.
The “Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air” exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum is an impressive exhibit but seems to brush aside aviation in World War I. The exhibit’s entrance has a display of pop culture references to World War I’s top scoring ace Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen. Patrons are drawn to a movie theater that shows film clips from postwar movies about World War I air combat. The exhibit goes to great lengths to tell patrons pop culture portrayals of World War I air combat aren’t reality.
Just displaying the aircraft with a plaque has the advantage of giving the patron the ability to get a good view, and photograph, of the aircraft. It also has the advantage of not cluttering up viewing and display space. This way more patrons can get unobstructed views of more aircraft. This is especially important if the aircraft is unique or one of a few remaining examples of it. A disadvantage is patrons who don’t know anything about the aircraft aren’t given a reason to be interested in the aircraft. Displaying an aircraft without a context is also a missed opportunity to confirm or deny what many believe about the particular aircraft. Without context an aircraft that had a significant role in history is indistinguishable from an aircraft that is historically insignificant.