A Semester at the International Women’s Air and Space Museum

The International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM), located inside Burke Lakefront Airport, is a hidden gem that adds to the richness of the city of Cleveland. I completed my internship there this past spring semester. This museum accomplishes an overwhelming feat by having information and exhibits on over 6000 women from the aviation and aerospace fields. Located in a public airport, the museum cannot charge for admission, and so they rely on membership fees and contributions from patrons. The exhibits are located throughout the first floor of the airport, such as pilots’ handmade dresses, planes and the first soda machine in space. During my time at the museum, I met many great people, including staff, volunteers and trustees. The museum has three employees, Heather, the executive director; Katie, the operations manager; and Mike, the collections manager. At the museum, I was the collections intern, and I would come in two days a week, usually around thirteen to fourteen hours a week.

My main project was organizing the collection of Helen Sammon, a former board member who passed away in 2016. A member of the Lake Erie Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a group of originally 99 female pilots started in 1929 that has expanded to many different chapters around the world as stated on their website, she lived an extensive life. Meeting the extraordinary pilot, Arlene Davis, inspired Helen to become a pilot. Helen also served as the scrapbook chairman for the Lake Erie Chapter of the 99s, and she documented meetings and events of the 99s, IWASM events and her own travels. Therefore, photographs she took herself comprised the majority of the fourteen boxes of her possessions. As I went through these boxes, I had to decide which items to keep for the museum’s collection. Then, I accessioned these items by filling out accession cards to categorize her possessions. Next, I picked out which items to include in an exhibit on Helen’s life. After working on her collection for four months, I felt as if I knew Helen by seeing all of her accomplishments and adventures captured through her photographs.

Many different aspects of Helen’s life are displayed in her exhibit. I decided the layout of the items. Her dedication to aviation is shown through her multiple awards, such as her Powder Puff Derby certificate commemorating her participation in the 28thannual all women air race, Lifetime Membership Award from the 99s, Women in Aviation 1929-1989 Oil Candle, and photos of her with her Pilot of the Year Award for 1989 and Homecoming Queen at the 99s North Central Section Fall Meeting. As an ambassador for the museum, Helen met many people in the aviation and aerospace fields, including authors and aviatrixes, CarolAnn Garrat and Julie Clark, John Glenn and astronaut Sunita Williams. To celebrate her travels, I included a picture from her trip to China in 2007.

In addition to working as a collections intern, I also gained experience installing exhibits. A few times a year, IWASM has an event called A Slice of History, a dinner where they have a guest speaker come to the museum to discuss a historic event. The first exhibit I helped put up was for Stephanie Johnson, Delta Air Lines’ first African American Female Captain and February’s guest speaker. The exhibit included her flight jacket as well as a biography and personal photos. I glued down the three photographs, biography and Slice of History paper to film core with a spray adhesive. Then, I had to cut the pictures from the film core. Finally, I put the jacket on the mannequin. This exhibit went up in January, and it came down in March. I also helped install April’s Slice of History exhibit for Sarah Rickman. As explained on the Slice of History advertisement, she is the historian for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), women who served as test pilots, ferry pilots, instructors and target towers during World War II. The five books she wrote that the museum has in its library collection became the main focus of her exhibit.

I also contributed to a permanent exhibit. Julia Holmberg, a pilot in training, sewed her own dress based on the first plane she flew solo in, a J3 Piper Cub. According to her biography in the exhibit, she overcame societal pressures to follow her passion of obtaining her pilot’s license. She now wants to be a role model for younger girls who want to become pilots. This exhibit includes a biography on Julia, pictures of her plane, childhood and her in her dress, as well as the dress itself. The hardest part of this exhibit was getting the petticoat and dress on the full body mannequin because the mannequin had broad shoulders. Lastly, the dress had to be ironed to polish up the exhibit.

Currently, I am finishing up the labeling of Helen’s collection. A label goes on each item kept in the museum’s collection. On each label, I write the accession number and the individual collection the item belongs to. I hope to volunteer at the museum this summer to continue gaining beneficial experience and working with the incredible staff of IWASM.

Helen’s exhibit shown with the glass door open to avoid glare
The stack of Helen’s accession cards
February’s Slice of History exhibit on Stephanie Johnson
April’s Slice of History exhibit on Sarah Rickman
Julia Holmberg’s exhibit with the dress she sewed based off the J3 Piper Cub