Federal Player of the Week

Margaret Weitekamp: Using memorabilia and science fiction to explain how Americans view space flight

Margaret Weitekamp
Margaret Weitekamp (The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum)
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The Partnership for Public Service
Monday, November 15, 2010; 11:57 AM

When most people think about the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the images that come to mind include the Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, the Jupiter Rocket and moon rocks that visitors can touch.

Margaret Weitekamp, the "pop culture" curator at the museum, has a completely different perspective.

Weitekamp thinks about the props for the television series Star Trek, the model of an alien spacecraft used in the Steven Spielberg film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," toy ray guns, comic books and items portraying old time fictional space heroes such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Captain Midnight.

A former college professor, Weitekamp oversees a collection of more than 4,200 pieces of space-related memorabilia and science fiction objects that includes toys, games, clothing, stamps, medals, awards, buttons, pins, comics, and trading cards.

In short, Weitekmap looks at the cultural and social dimensions of space flight¿how space is portrayed in the arts, books, movies, commerce and everyday American life.

"I think about how to bring memorabilia and toys and cultural products into our exhibits that tell another part of the story," she said. "This is a part of the collection that is the most democratic at the museum. People can't wear a space suit or fly in a spacecraft, but many people have had a mission patch or a button or a tee shirt or objects from movies or television shows."

"These items tell us a story of how ordinary people have interacted with space flight," explained Weitekamp.

The collection, for example, includes a cookie jar in the shape of a Mercury space capsule that was obtained from a family that had been captivated by John Glenn's 1962 flight around the earth. There is also a charm bracelet that belonged to the wife of a worker at the Kennedy Space Center. The woman's husband gave her a new charm to commemorate each space flight.

Michael Neufeld, the chairman of the space history department at the museum, said Weitekamp has provided a "vision" and "intellectual foundation" to the collection, telling through exhibits, websites, her writing and lectures how American society has viewed space flight and has related to it.

Through the science fiction, comics, movies and television, for example, Neufeld said, "you can see how people imagined space travel would be and how it could be in the future."

Weitekamp is always on the look-out to build the collection, traveling to the Astroland amusement park in Coney Island in 2008. This space-themed park was founded in 1962 at the height of U.S. excitement about the first American human space flights, and was closing down.

Weitekamp came back with an 8-foot by 7-and-a-half-foot lighted star that was part of the Astroland's entranceway and illustrated its space theme, its bright lights and excitement. Weitekamp said it was a visible symbol for thousands of people who had passed under the sign to take part in the park's rides and games.

The curator also found herself not too long ago on the movie set in Vancouver, Canada, for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, with Ben Stiller, to ensure that the space museum and its contents were accurately depicted. She said the space museum is really a character in the movie, and she was impressed by detail and time they took to accurately replicate the museum. She also found it "an extraordinary experience to see our workplace depicted that way."

Weitekamp came to the Air and Space Museum in 2004 from Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., where she was an assistant professor of women's studies. Her doctoral dissertation from Cornell, later turned into a book, led to her interest in the space program. The book, entitled, "Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women in Space Program," reconstructs the history of a privately funded project that tested women pilots for astronaut fitness at the beginning of the space age.

Weitekamp acknowledges her job is a bit unusual for a federal employee, but one that keeps her motivated and thinking all of the time.

"I love the challenge of bringing cutting-edge scholarship to the public in many different forms," she said. "Some days, my job is to write scholarly articles; other days, I'm trying to bring the same message to the public through a short label, an artifact display, a website, or a public talk. It's fun to reformulate what you know and what you are learning every day."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work to recognize the men and women who serve our nation, and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ for profiles of other federal players.

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