A-Conversation-with-Tom-Crouch

A-Conversation-with-Tom-Crouch

A Conversation with Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Aeronautics at the National Air & Space Museum

Tom Crouch and Jia Sun Tsang examining Chesley Bonestell's "Lunar Landscape" (July 2005). Credit: Eric Long.

 

Speaking with Tom D. Crouch is much like engaging in a nostalgic conversation with a well-liked relative. I had the pleasure of interviewing him last week about his thirty-year career with the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Crouch is Senior Curator of Aeronautics at the National Air & Space Museum (NASM) who's authored fifteen books on the history of flight, including Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age.

 

Unlike other boys growing up near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he realized that — rather than be a pilot — he wanted to be a historian and work at a museum. And so it goes. Crouch studied history at Ohio University and graduated with a BA in 1962. He continued on, receiving his masters from Miami University and finally his doctorate from Ohio State University. At twenty-three (and as the only person on staff), Crouch directed the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum. He planned exhibitions and borrowed artifacts directly from the Smithsonian. After developing a professional rapport, the Smithsonian offered him a job and he's been there ever since.

 

It is no surprise that when asked what his favorite moment in Air & Space history is, Crouch replies, "December 17, 1903." On this day, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with the first flight. Although he's written five books on the Wright Brothers, including The Bishop's Boys, Crouch is most interested in the process of invention rather than the invention of the airplane itself. Needless to say, his passion for flight is undeniable.

 

As a curator, Crouch's goal is to focus on specific topics that touch on a broader theme. In his opinion, exhibits aren't a good means to give detailed information. They aren't like writing books. However, they are a good way to give an introduction and an overview. Exhibitions aren't just about dates and chronology, but the bigger picture of what you want the viewer to walk away with. Therefore, he says, "I have to worry about what I want to say!"

 

Determining a specific topic is crucial. Next, there are many parameters to account for such as considerations of budget, timeline, spacial restrictions, and resources. Once the details are in place, Crouch develops a script for the exhibition. Scripts are similar to proposals, but are used to outline the narrative of the exhibit. This includes images, artifacts, and audio and visual elements. After a script is written and approved, Crouch works with a team of designers, educators, and project managers to complete the project.

 

One of the biggest obstacles in dealing with museum exhibitions is resources. In his words, Crouch says there's "never enough people and never enough money." Exhibitions are not the product of individuals, they are collaborative by nature. It takes a combination of both public and private funding and talented teams to produce a single exhibition.

 

 

Annie Leibovitz, Eileen Collins, photograph, 24 x 20 inches, 1999. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

 

One collaboration in particular is the Smithsonian's traveling exhibition "NASA | Art: 50 Years of Exploration" featuring 73 works of art by Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz (above), Nam June Paik, Norman Rockwell and more. Since ownership of NASA's art collection is split between NASA and NASM, Crouch partnered with NASA's curator Bertram Ulrich to create the exhibition. The National Air and Space Museum is the final destination of the exhibit, which can be seen on view starting May 2011 in Gallery 211.

 

While most major exhibits happen once per five years, Gallery 211 changes about two times per year (more than the other rooms) and is devoted to exhibiting artwork. According to Crouch, their choice of art is defined fairly broadly. In the past, this room has displayed the artwork of astronaut Alan Bean, "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth", and an exhibit dedicated to the TV Series Star Trek. Currently on display in Gallery 211 is "Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System" (below), Michael Benson's re-visioning of images taken by NASA's robotic space probes.

 

 

Installation view of "Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System" exhibition. Credit: Whitney Dail.

 

I asked Crouch if the National Air and Space Museum has any plans to collaborate and share with contemporary art museums and he answers, "Sure." But, as stated before, the museum has a broad view of art. Crouch doesn't mention specific upcoming collaborations. The Smithsonian's traveling exhibitions are mostly seen at science and history museums. However, one exhibition in particular, "In Plane View: Abstractions of Flight" has traveled to the Wichita Art Museum. "In Plane View" is an exhibition of 56 large-format photographs (see detail below) taken by NASM photographer Carolyn Russo emphasizing the aesthetics of airplane design with tight crops and abstracted compositions. (NASM published an art book to accompany the traveling exhibition.)

 

 

Photograph of Luftwaffe Fighter Wing 301 on a Focke-Wulf Ta 152 H from the exhibition In Plane View. Credit: Carolyn Russo, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

 

There's more to curating than planning exhibitions and managing the collection; public outreach is also valuable. Crouch stresses the importance to "reach out beyond the walls of the museum." He speaks at conferences celebrating aviation history, educates visitors of the museum with lectures and live Q&A's, and more recently, participated in Ask a Curator Day. It's his job to research and publish books and articles relating to the history of flight such as the birth of aeronautical engineering and aspects of the airplane. He also writes articles for the museum's magazine Air & Space, writes blog entries for the NASM, and stays current with younger generations through the use of social media like Twitter.

 

Wrapping up our conversation, my last question for Tom Crouch is If given a seat on the last Shuttle mission, would you take it? After a brief pause he answers, "I suppose so."

 

Interview conducted on September 28, 2010. © 2010-2013 Whitney Dail Yoerger. All rights reserved.