To the moon (and Cincinnati) and back

On September 28, the Cincinnati Museum Center will welcome visitors to travel 50 years back in time and 950,000 miles to the moon and back with its new special exhibit: Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.

The traveling exhibition is a project of the Smithsonian Institute and features artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, which brought the world the first manned lunar landing.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

In addition to its own impressive collection of private artifacts and exhibits, the Cincinnati Museum Center hosts temporary and traveling exhibits on a rotating basis. Large-scale temporary exhibit projects take years to come together and hosting them is no small feat. In the case of Destination Moon, Cincinnati almost missed out completely.

Dave Duszynski began his career with the Cincinnati Museum Center as the Planetarium Director in 1985. He is now the VP of Featured Experiences and is responsible for arranging the temporary exhibits that come and go through the facility, including both things curated from their own archives and those passing through from other institutions.

Five years ago, Duszynski heard that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. would be undergoing a massive restoration and, with the facility closed for renovations, they were sending some of their lunar artifacts out on traveling exhibition called Destination Moon. This special traveling exhibit would commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

A large portion of Duszynski’s work at the museum center involves scouting for traveling exhibits just like this. But, exhibitions of this size and significance are usually fully booked without any sales or publicity, so Duszynski’s job is to find out about them early enough in their formative stages to get Cincinnati on the list to host.

The centerpiece of the Destination Moon exhibit, he heard, would be the Columbia command module, the living quarters of the Apollo spacecraft and the only portion to return back to Earth. After the successful mission to the moon, the command module had traveled around on a nationwide tour in 1970–1971, but it has lived at the National Air and Space Museum since.

While planning the traveling exhibition, the Smithsonian was looking for host cities with significant contributions to the Apollo program. Considering astronaut Neil Armstrong’s legacy in Ohio and Cincinnati, and his previous position as Chairman of the Board for the Museum of Natural History in the 1980s, Duszynski thought Cincinnati had a decent shot at hosting.

He put the CMC in the running right away to host this once-in-a-lifetime experience, even suggesting that he’d host the command module alone for as long as it could stay if the entire exhibit could not come. But, initially, Cincinnati didn’t make the cut. Four other cities — Houston, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle — were chosen as hosts.

Then, with the National Air and Space Museum’s restoration taking more time than expected, the Smithsonian decided there was time to fit in one more stop on the tour and Cincinnati got the final spot.

Bringing the Smithsonian collection to the world

Kathrin Halpern is a project director with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). This division of the institution brings programing “to the rest of the country and beyond.”

Halpern says her role at SITES is similar to that of a conductor with an orchestra. She walks exhibit projects through their entire lifecycle, “from early concept ideas that we’re evaluating for feasibility to design fabrication, tour, and dispersal.” She has multiple exhibits in various stages of development in her portfolio at all times and they are often large and complex projects.

She’s been with SITES for six years and, for five of those, she has worked on the Destination Moon exhibit.

As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission approached, Halpern says SITES wanted to take advantage of the restoration closures and put some of the National Air and Space Museum’s best lunar artifacts out in the public, especially the Columbia command module. But the size of the module alone created a challenge.

Destination Moon is a very demanding exhibit in terms of the infrastructure necessary,” Halpern says.

The command module is oversized and weighs more than 13,000 pounds. Because of its size, potential sites had to submit engineering reports that confirmed their floors could hold the item, assuming it could even get into the building in the first place. Those engineering requirements alone, plus the necessary accommodations for the security of such a highly protected artifact, whittled down the list of potential partnering institutions.

When SITES decided there was time for a fifth stop on the Destination Moon tour, Cincinnati was not only one of the only qualifying sites left, but it was a perfect fit in other ways.

“Ohio is famous for the fact that it’s produced the most astronauts of any U.S. state,” Halpern explains. “And, of course, Cincinnati became the home of Neil Armstrong and his family after he retired. So there are a lot of things that make this a real great opportunity.”

Halpern doesn’t simply hand off her exhibits to their hosts; she manages the projects for their entire lifespan. In the beginning of development, she works closely with Smithsonian museum curators, designers, fabricators, and education specialists to develop the overall design and theme of a traveling exhibit, but then she works with local design and management teams at each host site to bring it to life. She says that no two hosting institutions are alike so every exhibit is adapted to its new locale.

Because of this, in addition to the core content of the Destination Moon exhibit, Cincinnati visitors will see additional material that tells how local history ties to the larger national story of Apollo 11 and then back to Cincinnati. (Visitors may have already seen the Cincinnati Museum Center’s own artifacts currently on display in the The Neil Armstrong Space Exploration Gallery.)

Destination Moon tells the story of the space program, the Apollo 11 mission, and the three intrepid explorers who changed the world the moment they stepped into their spacecraft. The exhibit features about 30 “space-flown” artifacts, which is the largest collection anywhere in any one place.

Experiencing a national treasure

The astronauts' survival kits included everything from sunscreen to a machete.

While the Apollo 11 space suits were too delicate to travel with the exhibit, Buzz Aldrin’s EVA gloves and helmet are included. Halpern notes that, through a magnifying lens, visitors can read a reminder list written on Aldrin’s glove. Among the reminders is one to “photograph boot print.”

Buzz Aldrin remembered to take the photo, of course. And the image of his boot print on the moon’s surface has become an icon of lunar exploration.

Halpern says there are other “wonderfully human moments” captured in this exhibit. One of her favorites is the survival kit that was contained in the command module, outfitted to help the three astronauts survive until they could be recovered from their landing location. Included is commonsense survival gear for a landing at sea — water, desalination tablets, sunscreen, etc. — and a few more surprising items like, for example, a very large machete.

It had always been possible, she explains, that the command module would land in the middle of the jungle.

As for Duszynski’s favorite artifact, he’d choose Buzz Aldrin’s helmet and visor. He explains that while Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong took most of the photos. Of all of the photos taken, Armstrong is only visible in one: a photo of Aldrin standing before him, with his reflection visible in Aldrin’s visor.

There plenty of impressive artifacts for visitors to explore at Destination Moon exhibit, but the Columbia command module certainly steals the show.

Halpern has been present in the gallery with the public while they viewed the module, and is always surprised by how people react to it. They don’t believe it’s the “real thing,” she explains. They can’t believe how close they can get to such a significant piece of history.

“It’s a remarkable artifact in and of itself,” she says.

For a closer look at Columbia, the exhibit features a high-resolution 3D rendering of the inside of the module. This interactive feature was created by the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office with seven types of photo capture — adding up to 7TB (terabytes) of data — resulting in an incredibly detailed rendering of the artifact, inside and out.

The command module has been encased in a Plexiglas shell since it went on display at the National Air and Space Museum. When it was being moved out for renovations, it was the perfect opportunity to open it up, do some restoration work, and preserve images of the interior for the digital age.

“It allows visitors to explore the interior of the command module which is something that has never been possible,” Halpern explains. It gives viewers a more complete understanding of the experience of the astronauts who lived in the module during their eight-day mission to the moon.

“It’s opened a really incredible, new way of seeing and interpreting the object,” Halpern says, including an up-close view of what she calls “astronaut graffiti,” the handwritten notation and numbers that correspond to communication between the module and mission control.

Duszynski says the Columbia command module is the largest single artifact the Cincinnati Museum Center has had on display for a traveling exhibit and agrees that its significance cannot be overstated.

“The command module has got to be one of the top treasures of the U.S. government,” Duszynski says.

“This is a phenomenal artifact. It’s the spaceship that took the astronauts to the moon. And it’s the only piece of that huge ship that found its way home.”

Cincinnati is the last stop on the Destination Moon tour before its contents return to their permanent home in a new gallery at the National Air and Space Museum that will feature a much broader look at the earth’s relationship with the moon. This new exhibit will tell the story of early dreams of space exploration and the early space program, all the way through modern lunar exploration and into the future. It will open in 2022.

Plan your visit

Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission opens at the Cincinnati Museum Center on Saturday, September 28th and remains open until February 17th, 2020. Tickets are available at the ticket window and on the CMC website. Cincinnati Museum Center members receive discounted admission.

Don’t miss the movie!

The Omnimax film Apollo 11 First Steps Edition opens on September 28th as well. It is a real-time experience of the days leading up to the Apollo 11 mission and the mission itself. It is made entirely of historic footage and audio, allowing viewers to “live it through the eyes and ears of the astronauts and their families,” Duszynski says.

Tickets are available at the museum or online.

Support for STEAM in the Museum is provided by Cincinnati Museum Center as it educates and inspires the leaders, builders and dreamers of this generation and the next.

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Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.