USF's Museum Blog

Intern-connectivity: SFO Airport Museum

by Lauren Dare

A funny thing happened on my way through the airport.


Pilots walking past exhibit cases

Have you ever thought that an airport, a place people often dread, would be a good spot for a museum? That’s what the City and County of San Francisco thought when the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, otherwise known as the SFO Museum, was created in reaction to the passage of 1978’s Proposition 13 in California. Proposition 13 resulted in a decrease in government funding to many programs like libraries and museums. Luckily, there were smart museum-lovers around who knew exactly what to do. As San Francisco’s largest revenue generator, SFO International Airport was in a prime position to support its own museum and could help humanize the sterile and stressful environment of air travel. The first SFO Museum exhibit was in 1981 and 1998 the Museum received its American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation. Today, with a potential audience of approximately 50 million passengers, the SFO Museum has proven to be an ideal location for museum-goers to experience the many facets of what art can be in a casual way.


Enjoying exhibits at the airport

The exceptional staff of the SFO Museum are able to run exhibits that are open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year without any interruption to the regular air travel experience. Every SFO passenger has the opportunity to see at least one of the 20 exhibition spaces whether they are conscious of it or not. However, this is not an easy job for the museum staff. SFO Museum is similar to many museums with most of the traditional roles. However, due to the nature of being in a highly active and security conscious airport there are a few unique challenges.

We’ll start at the beginning with a curator as they develop an exhibition. The planning stages are similar to that of a traditional museum, but because we host exhibits on a wide variety of topics rather than a theme-specific museum, our curators have to dive deep into new research for every new exhibit. In addition, due to the unusual layout of our exhibits, many of our wall texts are forced to repeat information so that the reader can experience the exhibit regardless of where they begin. SFO Museum Registrar, Tomo Aono explains, “The gallery situation is largely defined by the chance encounter, that visitors may approach a display from any given direction and not move through it in a prescribed linear fashion.”

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When an exhibit is finally approved by the museum staff, the excellent museum preparators build every support mount from the ground up. The SFO Museum team has many airport perks, but unfortunately easy travel to our exhibit cases isn’t one of them. Most of the exhibitions team is located at an offsite facility a few minutes’ drive away from the airport, which means that all of our custom made displays must first be mocked up and then securely packed for a short ride. Offloading of these mounts and the accompanying artwork are all done curbside, alongside families headed to Hawaii. If you’ve ever struggled with pulling your over stuffed suitcase out of the taxi with the pressures of multiple cars waiting for you to leave, imagine doing it with racks of priceless artwork.


Museum team pulling carts out of the truck. Photo by Lauren Dare

After rolling our carts through the terminals we are finally allowed to place our mounts in their display cases. Of course, we’re working in one of the busiest airports in the United States and don’t exactly have the luxury of closing down an entire thoroughfare to provide our installation team with the safety and security to which most museums are accustomed. Luckily, a few traffic cones and some caution tape are sufficient to keep the public at a safe distance.

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Exhibition preparation with cones and tape as passengers go by.

If everything goes absolutely perfectly, which it rarely does, our mounts get slid into place and art is secured in its custom made mount. Most installations take place over one or two days, rather than weeks at a traditional museum. When things don’t go perfectly, hopefully only one or two touch ups are required. A major issue could send the team back to their workshop, which involves repacking everything, hopping in a car and driving everything to and from again.

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Pilots walking past exhibit cases

This non-traditional museum environment certainly keeps everyone at the SFO Museum on their toes, as does working in the heightened security of an airport, but what fun is a job if everything is always the same? The next time you fly through SFO I hope you add an extra hour or two before your flight so you can experience all of the interesting and unusual exhibits that might be on view.

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Panorama of an SFO exhibit space



Photo credit: Photographs provided by SFO Museum staff unless otherwise stated.


To learn more about the University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.


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