Amelia Earhart Exhibit Lands At The Museum Of Flight In Seattle
We live in a world that takes many things for granted.
We are able to fly from New York to London in under five hours, for example, and we can reasonably expect to make it alive.
Though some would argue that we still have a long way to go, women in America today have many more opportunities to pursue careers than they did even one generation ago.
But we are reminded by a new museum exhibit in Seattle that a flight across the Atlantic once took over 20 hours. Aviation in the era of the Hindenburg could be fatal. And women in the past truly struggled to be recognized as independent, capable individuals.
In Search of Amelia Earhart at the Museum of Flight is presented as a collection of snapshots, almost like family photos hanging on a living room wall. The labels, which resemble name plates held in place by photo corners, invite us to move into an intimate space to experience legendary aviator Amelia Earhart's life on a personal level. The label text is small, a feature that encourages the viewer to engage with it on a personal level. However, but as the exhibit grew busier, it became increasingly difficult to read.
The exhibit has fewer than ten artifacts, but understood in relation to Earhart's life, these ten are relevant and interesting. Some are artifacts that one would normally associate with pilots of that era--a tin that once contained smelling salts; Earhart's leather helmet; and her flight suit. But there are also objects that remind us that Earhart was a woman, such as the compact that she carried with her to freshen up for photo shoots and one of the dresses she wore while working as a nurse in Toronto, Canada during World War I.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this exhibit is the personal perspective we get of Earhart. In Search of Amelia Earhart offers a glimpse of Amelia the woman and the aviator, but not Amelia the icon. One of the photos, Amelia's favorite picture of herself, shows a very different Amelia Earhart than what we are traditionally used to seeing. We are not confronted with the freckled, dirty face of a pilot that has just stepped out of the cockpit, but a beautiful woman wearing her pilot's wings over a pearl necklace. The photo seems to underscore the tightrope that women pilots walked in the 1930s, demanding to be recognized for their skill while retaining their identity as women. Alternatively, a photograph at the beginning of the exhibit shows Earhart as a young woman standing in a field with long, flowing hair. The text for the panel explains that she gradually shortened her hair, inch by inch, to avoid criticism, illustrating her desire to be taken seriously as a pilot first, then as a woman.
To reinforce this struggle, a collection of letters Earhart wrote to her fiancé, George Palmer Putnam, gives us a glimpse inside her head. In one of the letters, Earhart explains her reluctance to marry Putnam, expressing her need for a partner who will be supportive of her professional aspirations.
Though the primary focus of the exhibit is Amelia Earhart's life, it also illuminates American culture at the time she was flying. It was a time when most women were not expected to be educated or pursue careers, especially not those that were traditionally considered masculine.
As a means of supporting her passion for flight, Earhart performed in international airshows. But they did not provide enough money to keep her in the air. She was forced to endorse cigarette and luggage brands in order to finance her flying.
In Search of Amelia Earhart is not without its problems. The video clip voiceovers are charming, reminiscent of a depression-era radio show announcer. But the volume at which they are played makes them distracting to those reading text panels. Seating is also a problem. My pregnant wife had to exit the exhibit entirely in order to find a place to rest. The Museum of Flight's audience tends to be older, so this oversight is surprising.
Naturally, Earhart's disappearance in the Pacific in 1937 is addressed in the exhibit. Though there are many theories about what happened on her final flight, it's refreshing that no specific view is advanced or supported; the exhibit is a celebration of Earhart's life rather than a glorification of her death. As if to emphasize the mystery of her disappearance, and perhaps of the woman herself, the only known fragment of the missing Lockheed Electra Earhart flew on that tragic flight is included in the exhibit.
In Search of Amelia Earhart is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibit that should not be missed. It takes us on a search, not for what happened to this iconic pilot, but for who she was. The exhibit runs through May of 2010. The museum is located at 9404 E. Marginal Way S. Seattle, and is open daily from 10am to 5pm. For more information contact the museum at (206) 764-5720 or online at www.museumofflight.org.
Taylor Felt is an exhibit designer based in Seattle Washington.
Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed L-10 Electra NR 16020 c. 1937. Photo courtesy of Museum of Flight