The Kansas Aviation Museum wants to propel visitors to explore history, and its Cessna through the Years: A Manufacturing Odyssey exhibit is one way to do that. The exhibit, which opened last week, aims to tell the story of the seminal company’s force in the local economy, as well as distinguish Cessna’s place in the national air-manufacturing industry. The takeoff of the show marks a pivotal moment in the celebration of Cessna. It’s also an important step forward for the museum.
“Wichita is called the Air Capital of the World because 70 percent of all general aviation aircrafts were built here,” said Lon Smith, the museum’s executive director. “There are few other communities of our size that could produce so large a share of the market in one industry. Cessna has been a big player in that effort. This exhibit pays tribute to their contributions.”
Smith said that the museum possesses more than 2.5 million artifacts related to the aviation industry. Engineers, aircraft employees and general personnel often hold on to items such as decorative coasters, commemorative plaques, manuals and structural sketches throughout their years of employment. Those private collections are frequently donated in retirement or after a family member’s death. Objects bearing the Cessna brand make up the crux of this display.
Showcased upstairs inside newly burnished glass cabinets and augmented on large, rolling kiosks, the story of the company founded by Clyde Cessna unfolds. An intriguing relic sits at the center: A Fairchild Photographic Flight Analyzer donated by Cessna. The main cases have a chronological history of every plane built by Cessna. Models of those creations glide between the panels. Photographs highlighting the grandeur of the aircrafts’ design are also mixed in. The kiosks contain glossy panels that recount the story of the company’s founding, the growth of the aircraft industry and some of the key players in Cessna. Contributions by Russ Meyer, Mort Brown and Elden Cessna are discussed. A leather jacket Clyde Cessna wore in the 1920s also is on display. Smith said that these elements will be part of the permanent collection.
“Cessna has produced over 100,000 aircrafts,” said Smith. “I hope this show gives people a better understanding of how and why they exist and their importance to us as a community.”
Also on display for the next year are items bearing the Cessna brand. Cufflinks, multicolored coasters, magnifying glasses and name badges make up some of the tokens. There also are collector models, such as a prototype kit for the Cessna 172. Smith explained that many of these were the type of things that were typically given out as souvenirs to visiting business partners or perhaps to staff at company dinners.
The construction of the exhibit is noteworthy because it was assembled entirely by the staff and volunteers of the Kansas Aviation Museum. The result is a professional, eye-pleasing presentation. Whereas past displays have cost more than $150,000 and have been contracted out, this in-house design was completed for a fraction of that cost, Smith said. Of the $17,000 spent, $9,000 paid for renovations while $8,000 paid for the exhibit itself.
“We literally did everything ourselves, from building the kiosks to constructing the cabinets to even rebuilding the walls and repairing the floor,” said Smith. “The research and design was done in-house, too. This was all produced by amazingly dedicated volunteers and talented staff. I think it says a lot about the level of care many have for this museum that we could make something like this happen with so little money.”
Smith said he hopes that this display will be the beginning of showcasing aircraft history in the Air Capital. He said the museum is planning similar shows on Learjet and Beechcraft.
“We want to offer a major treatment of the companies that emerged after the Great Depression in the aircraft industry,” Smith said. “Cessna was a major player in that and continues to be a driving force today.”