The Smithsonian Institution has long had a superb collection of aircraft throughout aviation history; what is less well-known is that it also has a fine collection of over 1,300 airline and air force posters spanning many decades. The majority of that collection has remained in storage, but an intrepid team of interns and volunteers has begun the process of photographing and scanning the collection, which is now available online.
Amelia Brakeman Kile describes the effort in the National Air and Space Museum’s blog, AirSpace:
This marks the first time the poster collection, which includes graphic art published from as early as 1827 up to the twenty-first century, has been accessible to the public as an archive, since the majority of it has remained in storage in Suitland, Maryland. The collection provides a wealth of information related to balloons, early flight, military and commercial aviation, and space flight, documenting aerospace history and technology while providing a window into popular culture. As a student of art history, I found the collection visually engaging and historically significant. As a young museum professional, I gained experience physically working with the objects, recording and organizing information, photographing, identifying methods used to print the posters, and even had a lot of fun!
Now that the collection is online, scholars will be able to contribute to knowledge, study and discussion of this valuable resource. Working hands-on within a collection that was not accessible to many people, the group working on the project developed the feeling that this was “our” collection in a sense, and it is a thrill to now be able to share it. It is a diverse collection, wide-ranging in terms of subject, country of origin and time period, and thus it will make an excellent educational tool. Photographing and documenting the posters was part of a larger, ongoing effort to provide images and relevant information about the National Air and Space Museum’s art collection to the public, all while preparing the collections to move to the new Phase Two Collection Storage Facility at the Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center. So, take a look at the collection and tell us what you think!
— Brakeman Kile, Amelia. “Fly Now! Making the National Air and Space Museum’s Poster Collection Accessible, Online.” AirSpace, 17 October 2009.
I have quite a few favourites from the collection, mostly advertising from Imperial Airways—many of which already appear on this site re-tooled as Taylor Empire Airways ads in the first sidebar to the right.
Something I find fascinating is the different focii of the various airlines when advertising their services and capabilities. Pan American tends to zero in how great it will be to arrive at their exotic and fun destinations, with a lesser (but still prominent) focus on PAA’s hardware, the famous Clipper flying boats. Imperial’s ads centre on the luxuriousness of their service, their aircraft fleet, and the sheer volume of their destinations and routes across the far-flung British Empire. KLM takes pride in its speed and efficiency; noting that their total trip times are generally shorter than everyone else’s. The French airlines are all about the wonders of discovery in exotic locales, tending to shy away from promoting the particulars of their fleet. In contrast Hamburg-Amerika’s posters are all about the awe-inspiring bulk of their monstrous zeppelins, saying little about cabin accommodation and absolutely nothing about any fun to be had once you’ve arrived at your destination.
I’ll discuss some of these contrasts with more detail in later posts, but for now I’d just like to say thanks to the interns and volunteers at NASM; without their hard work these treasures wouldn’t be online.