Paris Air Show

Aviation museum is hidden gem no more

 - December 15, 2006, 1:36 PM

The French military has run Le Bourget’s air and space museum since it opened in 1919. In recent decades, a French air force general at the end of his career has traditionally held the top post.

So the appointment of a civilian in January represents a real first and signals the defense ministry’s desire both to modernize the role of the Musée de l’air et de l’espace and to take one of the world’s most remarkable aviation collections out of the shadows.

The museum’s new director, Gérard Feldzer, clearly embodies a spirit of change. The retired Air France captain has come to Le Bourget from the Aéro-club de France, where he served as director of the august body situated in an elegant district of downtown Paris. While there he dusted down the world’s oldest aviation club and gave it a new sense of credibility in France.

One of Feldzer’s finest hours came in 1998, when he transformed the Champs-Elysées into a magnificent aircraft static display to mark the Aéro-club’s centenary. For a full month, millions of visitors came to admire the aircraft and helicopters on display right in the heart of Paris on the sidewalks of one of the world’s most famous streets.

Feldzer’s extraordinary network of well-connected contacts made the operation possible, and the French defense ministry wants to tap exactly this network to compensate for the museum’s lack of financial means.

“Is it the job of the defense ministry alone to support the national heritage?” asked Feldzer rhetorically. “In fact, the museum is about 30 percent self-financing and we need to get to 50 percent. This objective will be achieved through partnerships, and mainly with companies.”

The new director has arrived at the museum with a plan of action and a multitude of ideas. In particular, he wants to create themed areas to present the evolution of technologies, from the origins of aviation to the most recent innovations, bringing together elements from the museum’s collection and demonstrations of current techniques. “It’s a way to refocus the museum in a contemporary context,” said Feldzer, who would like, for example, to get one of the world’s three leading simulator manufacturers to back his plan for a simulator exhibit. “This would be both a presentation of heritage and technological window onto the latest simulators.”

The museum has to confront its limited resources, and recognizes such a project requires a partnership. “Our annual budget is €6.2 million [$7.6 million] of which two thirds are absorbed by staff costs,” said Feldzer. “The museum employs 110 people. The rest of the budget goes for upkeep and investments.”

Lack of Recognition

But limited financial resources aren’t the only problem facing the new director. The museum also suffers from a severe lack of recognition. Few Paris-area residents realize that at the gates of their city lies one for the world’s most prestigious aviation museums, with no fewer than 337 aircraft.

The previous director did try to raise the museum’s profile, increasing the number of events it held with some success and an increase in visits. In 2004, the museum received 200,000 visitors, 30,000 more than in the previous year. (By comparison, the U.S. National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., on average attracts more than nine million visitors per year and has an annual budget of about $28 million.)

Last year’s opening of the new Concorde Hall, where the public can see two of the supersonic airliners, including prototype number one, has made a big difference.

Of course, the museum’s viability depends heavily on the Paris Air Show. In 2003, it received 33,000 guests during show week– double the monthly average.

This year the public can enjoy a special exhibition dedicated to Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. This exhibit, created in Brazil, has assembled numerous personal belongings of the great aviator. It sits among the museum’s own exhibits, including a Demoiselle aircraft.

The Le Bourget show also coincides with the opening of a new 16,150-sq-ft exhibit hall covering World War II. The display gives visitors a chance to view exceptional exhibits not seen by the public in many years. An authentic Yak 3 from the Normandy-Niemen fighter group sits among a dozen or so airframes. This month the museum marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice by paying homage to the squadron, which distinguished itself on the war’s eastern front. Pilots and mechanics from Russia and France are reuniting for the event.

Since taking the reins at the museum, the new director has begun many new projects, including the restoration of the old air terminal at Le Bourget, in the museum is situated.

The building itself is a real historic monument and a witness to a rich period in world aviation history. Feldzer wants to show it off in its true light. He also wants to restore and reopen the old air traffic control tower with the help of the controllers association.