Although it seems ages ago at this point, a little over two months ago, we were in Washington, DC, watching two space shuttles, Discovery and Enterprise, move to their permanent homes. Discovery took up residence in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, in a very deft and public move into the gallery that Enterprise formerly occupied. Enterprise headed for a new midtown address in the City that Never Sleeps, taking up residence at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
In our ten-hour day at Udvar-Hazy, we not only got to see Enterprise meet Discover;, the two shuttles had never been in the same place before. As members of the press, we had the opportunity to interview several of the speakers from that morning’s ceremony. We’ve already written about our interviews with astronaut and Senator John Glenn, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and the first woman to command a space shuttle, Eileen Collins. Two of our other conversations from that day were with people directly connected to Discovery’s new home: Dr. Wayne Clough, the twelfth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and General John R. Dailey, Director of the National Air and Space Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian system. Both men were enthusiastic about what has come to be known as STEAM.
We had heard of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—before and make that the topic of one question we usually asked astronauts we meet. What, then, was STEAM? Dailey made it clear that art is now part of thinking when it comes to educating future generations and informing the public who wander their ways through the National Air & Space Museum’s two facilities. Art is crucial in the educational configuration of subjects because it embodies creativity, imagination, and innovation. The approach of the artist is necessary for big leaps in the STEM disciplines and important for cultural development more generally.
We had, in fact, viewed an art exhibit at the facility on The Mall the day before the Discovery installation and meeting these two men. The National Air and Space Museum has a 4500-object art collection, of which they have space to display very little. Dailey’s hope is for increased visibility of that collection in its current buildings and, importantly, a new art facility that will contain exhibits and long-term storage. Having seen images from the Hubble Telescope exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and, earlier, another exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, we can understand the importance and value of making such artwork available more widely. We can imagine the hundreds of paintings of aircraft that are currently in crates and out of view and how bringing those to light would generate a conversation about the relationships between form and function, aesthetics and technological innovation.
In addition to the physical objects, the National Air and Space Museum has committed to digitizing as much of its holdings as feasible, eventually making every artifact in its collection accessible online. Dailey stated that, when an artifact is added to the collection now, it is photographed in 144 views so that it can be rendered digitally in three dimensions. This commitment fits the museum’s mission and allows millions of teachers and students to study the museum’s collection.
Clough concurred, saying that he grew up in a small country town and was unaware that such things as these artifacts existed. “That’s a shame,” he stated, clearly wanting to ensure that future generations have more access to the artifacts of the century of flight and the objects of the Space Age than he did.
The National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are on board with STEAM, each having new grant programs to encourage connections and collaborations between the arts and sciences. Though we hadn’t heard the term STEAM before talking with these two gentlemen, Lofty Ambitions has been engaged in this combination. We are, after all, a poet and a scientist. In addition, check out the following guest posts for some other great examples of STEAM in action: