Paris Air Show

Museum Prepares to Write a New Chapter in Aviation History

 - June 19, 2017, 2:30 PM
These models of the classic Fouga Magister jet trainers are a landmark for the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget, which is now being renovated and expanded. [Photo: Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace]

Visitors to the 2017 Paris Air Show will be able to see the early stages of an extensive renovation of the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, which started late last year and is due for completion in 2019 before that year’s Salon du Bourget. The investment is intended to transform the world’s oldest aerospace museum, for which the oldest exhibits date back to 1919, when Le Bourget Airport was first used for commercial operations. The airport closed to commercial airline traffic in March 1981, and is now one of Europe’s busiest gateways for business aircraft.

Both wings of the 3,000 sq m (32,293 sq ft) gallery (opened in 1937) will be extensively remodeled to provide better space to show off exhibits that originate from the earliest days of aviation and, more specifically, from World War One. The museum also will renovate the west-facing façade overlooking the airport ramp, including the terraces where Parisians once flocked to watch flights taking off and landing.

One of the main goals of the upgrade project is to move the official entrance to the museum to the renovated section of the building and to provide a more spacious point of entry for visitors. The works have been financed by France’s Ministère des Armées (the country’s defense department), which has allocated around $47 million in support through 2019, with the potential for this sum to be increased.

The idea is to get back to the art deco spirit of the 1930s while completely renovate the staging of the exhibits,” explained Jean-Emmanuel Terrier, the museum’s public development director. The museum’s new general director, General Gérard Vitry, is endeavoring to place a greater emphasis on the human and social aspects of aviation, rather than purely the technology.

As a result, in the main gallery the collection will feature some historic posters, post cards, drawings, toys and photos. The museum has one of the most important collections of aviation exhibits in the world, with over 40,000 items, including more than 450 aircraft. It also maintains a photo library of more than 500,000 images.

However, like most museums, the Le Bourget collection is only able to displays a fairly small percentage of everything it owns. For instance, only around 100 aircraft are on display today.

The renovation of the main gallery will provide the opportunity to show off some 19th century exhibits and to install items that have never previously been seen in public. Some of the images to be displayed include vintage aerial photographs taken by the 19th century pioneer Nadar (whose real name was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon).

Improving the Visitor Experience

The new staging is intended to rise to the challenge of both telling a new story and providing a new experience for visitors, notably through the use of new digital technology. The museum intends to roll our more aspects of these new features in the coming months.

The full reopening of the new sections of the museum is anticipated in the spring of 2019. It will be a welcome rejuvenation for a facility that has not been fully operational since initial remodeling work began in 2013. That year the three Fouga CM170 Magister aircraft displayed in front of the museum entrance were replaced by plastic models of the jet trainer. In 2015, the hall devoted to World War Two aviation was reconstructed, with financial support from the U.S. foundation David H. Dewhurst. Some notable jewels from this section of the museum include a Dakota, a Dewoitine D 520, a P-51D Mustang, a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt and the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. XVI.

Two years ago, the new Normandie-Niémen hall opened, with some funding from several Russian banks. Last year, the east façade of the building got a makeover.

The prolonged period of construction has made it harder, temporarily, for visitors to enjoy the museum. Annual visitor numbers fell from around 270,000 in 2013 and 2014 to around 200,000 last year.

Much of our audience is families with lots of children and some of our educational workshops have had to be suspended during the construction work, which has discouraged some visitors,” said Terrier. At the same time, it has also been harder for the museum to organize temporary exhibitions on particular themes during the period of disruption. One of the last ones it put on closed earlier this year and was focused on the World War One battle of Verdun.

Renovation of other parts of the museum also is being seriously considered. Subject to budgetary approval, this work might cover those parts of the facility dedicated to aviation in the 1960s and 1970s, space conquest, the inter-war years (1920s and 1930s) and helicopters. The rotorcraft exhibits include some exceptional items, such as the Oemichen helicostat, the Cierva C8-2, which was the first autogyro to cross the English Channel, and the Focke Achgelis FA 330 A0 glider, which was designed to be dragged by a submarine. Also on the list for remodeling is the Cocarde hall, which houses the main combat aircraft to have served with the French air force since the 1950s and their various prototypes.

The Concorde hall, which was added in 1995, is not to be modernized. It still boasts a pair of the iconic supersonic airliner—one in the colors of Air France, and the other a prototype made by program collaborators BAC of the UK and France’s Sud Aviation. Alongside the Concordes, resides one of Dassault’s Mirage V bombers.

Among the other aspects of the museum that visitors don’t see are its archives. It has to carefully protect an enormous and valuable collection.

With this in mind, French aerospace industry group Gifas has paid to build a new hangar on the other side of the Le Bourget runways in the town of Dugny. This 1,500 sq m (16,146 sq ft) building is already fully operational, housing aircraft made of wood and fabric, as well as the wicker nacelles of balloons.

Meanwhile, in the basement beneath the museum’s main gallery, a new space is being constructed to store a large collection of posters, drawings, paintings, models and other aviation-related artwork dating back to the latter days of the 19th century. The museum’s conservation team are hopeful that more of these works will go on public display in the future.

A380: the Museum Piece

It hardly seems like yesterday that the Airbus A380 double-decked widebody was at the cutting edge of air transport technology. In February, a prototype of the airliner was pulled onto the museum’s static display to sit alongside its nemesis the Boeing 747. But there is still up to 12 months more work to be done before visitors can climb on board the new star exhibit.

The A380 will doubtless prove to be a strong attraction for the museum, but what will likely provide an even more significant boost to visitor numbers is the anticipated extension of the Paris metro system after 2020. A new line running north from the center of the French capital out to Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport will include a station specifically built right outside the museum’s entrance.

This important ground transportation upgrade should be open around late 2023 or early 2024, allowing for a 20 minute ride from downtown and 11 minutes from the main Paris airport. The museum’s management believes it could potentially triple their visitor count by around 2026, but it will also be a huge boost for employees working at companies around the Le Bourget Airport and also for Paris Air Show visitors, who currently battle miserable traffic conditions or inconvenient rail and bus connections to get to the biennial aerospace gathering.