Why Your Airport Needs a Museum

Director of Marketing
Ideas February 25, 2020 Why Your Airport Needs a Museum

Last year, I was invited to speak at a museum conference in Cairns, Australia.

After 20+ hours in the air, from NYC to Los Angeles to Brisbane, our CEO Tasia and I eventually landed in picturesque Cairns. The airport was small, modern and clean; a nice change from LAX.

A few steps out of the airport, a reporter and camera crew pulled us aside. “What do you think about the $55 million investment in the airport to open more shops and restaurants?”

“I don’t know” I admitted sleepily, “it sounds like a lot of money.”

“How would you use it?”

“Renegade airport tours I guess…”

My first answer was right, the second was fun and wrong.

The right answer? Build the best f***ing airport museum the world has ever seen.

Airports as Financial Black Holes

Airports allow people to get from point A to long-distance point B without days or weeks for travel.

Airports are also incredibly expensive to build. Denver international airport was $5 billion, Beijing was at least $8 billion and Osaka weighs in at $20 big billions. And that is all before operating costs.

Many airports lose money, which is one reason they build shops and restaurants. These tenants provide rent and other revenue, which helps keep the lights on and the security officers cheerfully taking away your shampoo.

Retail also makes sure you have access to food and trinkets before and after flights, but adding more retail has diminishing returns on utility. You’ve probably noticed most of these shops are selling the same bland sandwiches and cushy neck pillows.

Why not invest in a museum instead?

Three Reasons Your Airport Needs a Museum

There are dozens of reasons that airports and museums are a match made in travel-heaven, and here are a few of them.

First, airports are like Disney World; you go and wait. That extra hour or two when you are juggling Starbucks and Candy Crush is time that you could be enjoying an awesome museum. One priority gets you caffeinated, and the other nourishes your soul. At scale, museums also have a meaningful impact on education and culture. And airports have scale; over 4 billion passengers travel each year.

Second, airport museums are an opportunity to showcase a region’s unique history and people. The Athens International Airport in Greece has a phenomenal collection of pottery and bronze-works, all found by the team digging the airport’s foundation. Most airports aren’t built on ancient Greece, but every airport has a story to tell about its community.

Athens Airport museum
The small but mighty museum at Athens International Airport

Third, airport museums can make money via airport museum gift shops. Instead of selling digital gizmos, magazines and Swiss watches, you sell items directly related to the museum experience the visitor just had. Business travellers often cite, “taxis and boardrooms” as the extent of a trip, and you can give these folks meaningful experiences and souvenirs they actually want to take home.

There are some arguments against airport museums too.

Should Airports Provide Non-Essential Services?

At an airport, the most essential public-facing services are a way to check in, a way to keep people safe, and a way to get on your plane. Nearly everything else is non-essential, including coffee and WiFi.

A curmudgeon would gaze grumpily into the distance and mutter “museums are non-essential to airports too.” But that perspective is on flight utility and not experience optimization.

For many people, an airport is both the first and last experience they have with a region. The Peak-end rule, a psychological heuristic, says the peak and end of experiences carry more weight when people form judgments, as opposed to an average of the total. An airport museum providing an end-experience may be the difference between a visitor’s trip being “pretty good” versus the “best damn time I ever had.” The latter will influence repeat trips and recommendations for friends to visit too. What could be more essential to an airport than passengers bustling through?

Questions for the Comments:

  1. What are some “must-knows” that you’d share with airport architects and management considering a museum?
  2. What is one item from your museum that would be perfect for an airport collection?
written with 💖 by Michael Alexis

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Marge Davidson
    Marge Davidson
    February 25, 2020 at 9:58 am

    The gift shop should make it easy and fast to buy and ship purchases. It should also have lots of small items that relate to the locale – decks of cards w pics of the city, kids’ books/toys, etc.
    An airport museum should be interactive and focus on one or two facts about the city. Not necessary to be comprehensive.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:05 am

      Hi Marge! Sounds like very practical ways to make an airport gift shop successful. Thank you for the insights~

  2. Julie
    February 25, 2020 at 10:05 am

    I would have my airport museum be a temporary gallery that can be hosted by one of the cities museums. If they don’t have time to visit the full scale museum then at the very lease they got to see this one gallery. Vice versa if they did visit the full scale they would know about the temp gallery and maybe make a little extra time to visit it at the airport. With the temp gallery rotating every 6-9months between a variety of museums it would likely always have fresh interesting topics and tours. Just think of a temp children’s exhibit how the families would appreciate the distraction between flights.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Hi Julie! I expect parents would VERY much appreciate the chance to both entertain and educate their kids. Love it ❤️

  3. Lana Fe
    Lana Fe
    February 25, 2020 at 10:40 am

    This would be the classical application of if Mohammed doesn’t go to the mountain 🙂 Such a cool idea! I am a frequent traveler and spend a good bit of time at airports. Waiting, eating, shopping, reading at best. One of my recent experiences traveling through Atlanta International Airport, where to my big surprise the daunting 5-hour layover, was unexpectedly spiced up by a beautiful rainforest simulation installation and… a permanent Zimbabwean sculpture exhibit! I spent a good few hours browsing the two, marveling at the art and learning about the fascinating values of Zimbabwean culture. It was as if I quickly teleported to the African continent all while not leaving the walls of Atlanta airport! Needless to say, I’ve been telling all my friends about the experience and it just left such a lasting impression on me. Just like that. And i could have just wasted my time at the airport.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:02 am

      Hi Lana. Sounds amazing! Any insight on why Atlanta chose the rain forest and sculpture collection? It sounds like a very calming way to enjoy a layover. 🌴

        • Michael Alexis
          Michael Alexis • Post Author •
          February 26, 2020 at 9:33 am

          Thanks for the link + wow on $4 million investment!

          • CMN
            February 26, 2020 at 11:24 am

            The stunning Zimbabwean sculpture exhibition is in the underground walkway between concourses T and A. The rainforest walkway is between A and B, and then there’s also a fantastic exhibition on the history of Atlanta in the walkway between B and C. If you have time between flights, definitely use the walkways instead of taking the tram between concourses.

  4. K Boardman
    K Boardman
    February 25, 2020 at 10:40 am

    Our airport in Albany NY has showcased museums and historic sites in the region for many years now with cases and wall exhibits from those various sites on a rotating basis. It shows off the collections, sites, history, science and stories of the area very well. Unfortunately, one must go through the security check to enter the hallways where the exhibits are location. However, they fun and engaging for passengers waiting for planes and those arriving, some that might be new to the area.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 10:59 am

      Love how they connect the museum exhibits with the local institutions. Seems like one of the best alternatives to the “we built on Ancient Greece” model. Thanks Katie!

  5. Katie Dillard
    Katie Dillard
    February 25, 2020 at 10:48 am

    What an excellent argument for airport museums! Thank you for writing this, Michael. Personally, I would love to visit museums in airports that I fly through–I already look out for art on display in between terminals, so why not make a full-blown museum with artifacts and interpretation?!
    My first recommendation for airport exhibit designers/architects: make sure the pathways in between display cases/areas are wide enough for passengers with large rolling carry-on bags. You know, the large ones that people check at the gate last minute. I would also account for those passengers to not be paying attention to where they are rolling their luggage while perusing through exhibits. Second: keep the interpretive information brief. Use international icons instead of words when possible. Consider multi-lingual interpretive material. Also, provide floor arrows for wayfinding around the exhibit. Passengers are always looking for directions in airports, so direct them through the exhibit like they would be directed through a terminal.
    As for what should be on display? That should depend on where the airport is! What are the main cultural attractions in these cities? Have “samples” of what you could see at these places. For instance, if there’s a large aquarium in that city, have a few tanks of aquatic animals! People love to see live animals, and airports are such an unexpected place for living collections.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 10:57 am

      Thanks Katie! Love the ideas around space considerations — there is definitely some hefty luggage out there!

  6. Maria Mingalone, Executive Director, OMA
    Maria Mingalone, Executive Director, OMA
    February 25, 2020 at 11:14 am

    I frequent both San Diego, CA and Albany, NY airports and both have museum-like displays and public art. I love them both! That between time is always fun-filled with art viewing adding delight to otherwise down time. In Albany the displays are well curated, and are found along the corridors as one moves from one place to the other. If you’re not in a rush there’s an experience to be had without having to make an intentional trip to “the airport museum.” I like that.
    In Albany, I also like that there’s both contemporary art and artifacts from the region telling a bit about the locale. San Diego’s art program can be a bit harder to access—probably because the airport is more complex. But I do appreciate the chance to happen upon the work. Even when I am trying to find a particular artists work, it can be a bit challenging. I’m not sure if that’s just inherent in the airport architecture or a result of how the program is implemented.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:27 am

      Thanks for the insights Maria! I love the idea of sharing the corridors and transit space — it sounds like a great way to both maximize the number of people the collection can reach, and also offer them a great experience (the alternatives being ads or blank walls?)

  7. Rebecca Catching
    Rebecca Catching
    February 25, 2020 at 11:22 am

    The Shanghai airport (PUDONG) has quite a lot of rotating exhibitions of contemporary art (mostly painting) and also antiquities on view, but the experience feels a bit like decor as there is no context provided. This is key, to have some decent interpretation or interactivity. I’ve seen some amazing VR experiences, for instance at the recent Van Gough exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing. This would be an amazing way to provide some great educational and entertainment value in a small space. Plus it would stop the kids from climbing the walls. Most airports might not want to invest but if you got a sponsor!

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:26 am

      Hi Rebecca! Katie had a comment about multi-lingual interpretation – what do you think would be best?

  8. Katie Stofer
    Katie Stofer
    February 25, 2020 at 11:39 am

    Honestly, I’m always torn by this discussion – I don’t think your statement that the “masses” fly is really accurate. Sure, more upper-middle-class and middle-class (besides the ultra rich) do fly, but placing these in airports, at least in the U.S., beyond security, just means less accessibility for some! Unless (and I’m not aware of this) there is some way that people can access them without flying? A museum pre-security might address some of the airport’s needs as well as preserve accessibility (although again transportation to the airport itself might be a barrier)- so why not both?
    Some of the installations in Anchorage airport were fascinating, as well as BWI, Atlanta’s community art from kids …

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 25, 2020 at 11:59 am

      Hi Katie. Good points. Stats look like majority of Americans have flown, but def. a much smaller percentage worldwide. I updated wording to remove “masses.”

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:08 am

      Quick additional thought. I like the balance you suggested with locating the museum pre-security. My recall is that the museum at Athens’ airport was near the front entrance (pre-security). I wonder how that affects attendance and visitation time for passengers? For example, I expect security is the biggest unknown time variable, and one that makes people nervous about getting to the gate on time – which could mean that people skip the museum or keep visits very brief?

  9. Jay
    February 25, 2020 at 11:40 am

    Denver airport has one of the best airport museum exhibits I have seen at any airport. They rotate the displays reflecting the aviation heritage and culture of the Centennial State. Excellent interpretive signs using easy to read font and well researched information.

    Reagan National has a great exhibit but it’s very hard to find unless you’re going between terminals or to the USO, which is how I came across it.

    For what to include, I would suggest local connections to aviation, space, and/or transportation. After that, it must be kept up to date and have dare I say traveling exhibits. Someone else here had a great idea to lay it out like terminals, walkways, int’l air travel signage, luggage tags, historic travel trunks, etc. Cutouts of historic aircraft showing how civilians and military have traveled over the years.

    Add in some unique aviation history such as Fred Smith’s Fedex story or how baggage has changed over the decades of air travel. Maybe a flight simulator with a retired KC-10 or KC-135 boom operator area controls showing how planes refuel in-flight to keep kids and teens occupied and off their screens save taking pictures.

    So many of us have no idea what goes on behind the curtain regarding airport operations from food to fuel. Set-up an airfield management diorama where travelers could see the logistics involved in operations from air traffic control to controlling access to the airport. You could interview cleaning crews, fuel drivers, air traffic controllers, AOA snowplow drivers, weather observers, etc.

    Or how about exhibits on air traffic control history from semaphore and radios to modern day ADS-B and radio navigational aids.

    Just a few thoughts. Thank you for this forum!

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:13 am

      Love the idea of using the space to educate passengers about airport operations. It seems like there are some parts of airports that people don’t fully trust or understand (security for checked-luggage, gate changes, etc.) and that this space could support. Even my joke about security taking shampoo could fit that category. Thanks Jay!

  10. Melanie
    February 25, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    The Albuquerque airport, Sunport, has a CURATOR and an astounding collection of New Mexican art as well as historic furnishings. https://abqsunport.com/at-sunport/sunport-arts-program/ In addition, it has a collection on aviation history of permanent display, and features changing exhibits from the states’s Department of Cultural Affairs, AND features mid-day concerts with regional performing artists on a regular basis. Currently on display, https://www.lowrider.com/events/lowriders-at-the-airport/

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:15 am

      Hi Melanie. Thank you for sharing the links! Beautiful collection ☀️ It sounds like Sunport is really making an effort to make it a community space too.

  11. Erin
    February 25, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    It is a great idea and I am a huge fan of public art and art in airports. But my question is: who pays for it? Most museums, whether public or private, large or small, are already stretching their resources to the limit – both human and financial.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:22 am

      Great question and would love to hear from you and others — what would be the best way to fund ongoing operations? What are the cost and budget considerations for airport museums and how are they different from other types of institutions? Thanks Erin!

  12. Diane Holmes
    Diane Holmes
    February 25, 2020 at 8:18 pm

    We have an airport for our Museum.
    but yes, love it if you have the backing of the city, county or state to keep it staffed, etc.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:25 am

      Hi Diane! Off topic, but I had the chance to visit The Museum of Flight last year. I loved the framing of your membership tiers, which seemed based on very thoughtful consideration of the people using them. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. Deborah
    February 25, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    I like Jay’s suggestion about what goes on behind the curtain in operations. Having worked in Operations at Orly in Paris, I am still amazed that we keep upwards to almost a million passengers flying at any given time of the day, obviously depending on which stats you look at. And surprisingly, most of those flights are on time flying without a hitch. If passengers had logistical info on what it takes to get them to their destination safely, I think there would be much more understanding and calmness around flights that are delayed for any of 100 reasons.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:28 am

      What the teams and individuals at airports do is amazing, and I love the insight “most of those flights are on time flying without a hitch.” Thanks for sharing Deborah~

  14. Rosemary W
    Rosemary W
    February 26, 2020 at 12:02 am

    How sad to read that the small and unique Cairns Airport is destined to go the way of the large, soulless shops and restaurants airport style. Saved at the last minute by the inclusion of a Museum – that would be an upgrade worth doing. I am interested to hear how the existing Airport Museums create experiences that cater for travelers different time constraints. Is the architecture or content created so that your flights in 1 hour, 2 hours , 3 hours visitor can engage with the exhibits and move on/out with a clear understanding of how much you can see without running risk of missing your plane. _ Maybe there are staff or signs that make it clear that the first room/section – allow 1 hour – second part for those with 2 hours etc. More detailed text and information on the objects or people/places featured in the museum could be provided in apps to download on your device to explore on the next part of your journey or once you reach your accommodation.

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:30 am

      I recall some airports have monitors that indicate “anticipated time to go through security”, which seems like it could help here. Still variation and risk though, which may be a deterrent. Thanks Rosemary!

    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      February 26, 2020 at 9:31 am

      Beautiful! And exciting that the NYT wrote about it. Thanks RD!

  15. Alison Montillet
    Alison Montillet
    February 26, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    A few years ago the National Museum of Australia installed one of their vehicles at the Canberra Airport (https://www.canberraairport.com.au/news/i-like-aeroplane-jelly/). It’s a great way to create a “teaser”, especially for travelers who are disembarking, not transiting through the airport. It also frees up collection storage space, especially if the objects are large and shares the collection with a wider audience. From a nerdy collection management point of view, my only concern would be vibrations from landing airplanes for more fragile objects, but this is easily solved be replacing objects by replicas or a photograph.

  16. Carole Baker
    Carole Baker
    February 26, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    People passing through the airport in Nashville, TN don’t get a sense of the history of the city, much less the airport. The airport is on its 3rd terminal, which is under going expansion. The original terminal and airport went back to WWII and served as a military stop over before becoming a civilian airfield after the war. There are photos of that first terminal and the old “prop jobs” that serviced it in the archives. I would love to see that part of the city’s history permanently displayed in the main terminal, preferably where the majority of travelers could see it. Aviation buffs would love it.

  17. Beena
    February 27, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    Surprised to see that SFO Museum has not been mentioned. They are the only AAM accredited museum in an airport.

  18. Ole Rokholt
    Ole Rokholt
    March 4, 2020 at 3:15 am

    Great Idea! We have original Munch paintings and Lithostones rotating on display in a climatized display case at the OSL airport in Oslo. Small Exhibition, but enjoyable for travellers with some extra time in between tax free
    sales and coffeeshop. And a “live” poster ad for the Munch Museum.

  19. Kristina
    April 12, 2020 at 9:00 am

    The best way to way to keep your traveler entertained, is always hands-on experiences. Having worked in airports for almost half my life, I see that the kids are always left out. Airplanes, baggage tugs, etc are always the highlight of a child’s experience. Help each parent out, by creating a museum that will engage not only the adult, but enlighten the child’s imagination. Create the day in the life of the airport worker and let the kids engage, not only the children. Create a lifelike flight deck, have a hands on reservation computer where you can building the trip of a lifetime. Print out boarding passes, watch your bags travel on a conveyor belt. The ideas are limitless. During those lengthy delays, you can create on a big screen your ideal vacation detestation, and build your trip from point A to point B, and anything in between. Be the Pilot, be the ramp worker, be the Agent, or just be the traveler. Work together and create the vacation of a lifetime while you wait to get to yours!

  20. deven
    October 22, 2020 at 5:42 am

    HI. THIS IS DEVEN HERE, FROM INDIA. I am an architect and an interior designer by profession. I have done my design thesis of my post graduation on the same topic recently. Proposed an aviation museum in an almost abandoned beautiful airport building. I just loved to read your thoughts here, its like someone in some part of the word has an exact same thought process. would love to show you my work. Kindly connect if possible. cheers!!

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