ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Aviation's past is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is the most visited museum in the country. And now, it has received the largest corporate gift in the history of the Smithsonian: $30 million from Boeing.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the money will let curators do the first major overhaul of an exhibit that has been seen by over 300 million people.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: At the National Air and Space Museum building in Washington, D.C., visitors walk through the front doors into a grand hall filled with spacecraft and historic airplanes hanging from the ceiling. But the first thing they see is security equipment. After 9/11, officials installed X-ray machines and walk-through structures that intrude into the exhibit space.
Museum director Jack Dailey says it's a distraction for people trying to get their bearings.
JACK DAILEY: They're walking right by the moon rock without even seeing it because it's too close.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After missing their chance to touch the moon rock, visitors then mill around. One curator says they seemed confused like they don't know where they're supposed to go. In front of them is the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back and above them is Charles Lindberg's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.
This hall is called Milestones of Flight. Its artifacts represent epic air and space achievements. The hall hasn't changed much since the museum opened in 1976. Margaret Weitekamp says that's a problem. She's a space history curator. She explains, at the beginning, the museum didn't need to explicitly tell the story of how aviation and space flight had changed the world because visitors already knew.
MARGARET WEITEKAMP: That was lived memory for people. The Apollo program had only ended in 1972 and when the building opened in 1976, they were able to simply put the objects on the floor and know that their visitors coming through would know what they were looking at.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's no longer true. Lots of visitors weren't even alive back then so curators are planning plenty of changes. The hall's new centerpiece will be a big shiny moon lander from the Apollo era. It's currently off in a different corner of the museum. And there'll be new digital displays and features that will take advantage of people's cell phones and other mobile devices.
Weitekamp says the exhibit will stay open during the remodeling. She says the work should be done in 2016. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.