A Table, a Timeline, and the Visual Representation of Gender at the Air Zoo

IF/THEN: An Initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies
The Air Zoo is an IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant recipient. Twenty-seven ASTC-member museums received funding to launch projects aimed at increasing the representation of women and gender minorities in STEM across their museums’ content. This grant program is supported by the IF/THEN Initiative, a national effort sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers while creating a culture shift in how the world perceives women in STEM.

Designed to serve as the hub of the Air Zoo’s Women in Air & Space exhibit series, our Women in Air & Space Interactive Timeline not only allowed us to share the stories of more than 50 inspirational women with our guests, but it also called upon commitment to expanding diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion, and the visual representation of gender on our exhibit floor.

Just as we began to dream our women’s timeline into action, the Air Zoo received a remarkable gift.

Alongside 27 museums and science centers, we were named a recipient of an IF/THEN® Gender Equity Grant, a program created through a partnership between the Association of Science and Technology Centers and IF/THEN®, an Initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies. The program supports U.S.-based Association for Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) member museums as they embark on projects to increase the representation of women and gender monitories in STEM across museum content.

As we dove into the exhibit process, the grant program provided exponentially more than funding—which we certainly appreciated during the difficult times caused by the pandemic! But importantly, the program made great resources available to us and through it, expanded our understanding of and ability to nurture gender representation.

The first step found us engaged in a gender representation evaluation of our existing exhibits as well as our print and web content. Together, our team surveyed our exhibits from corner to corner and combed through every webpage and brochure made available to the public. We gathered data on gender as well as on how we represent people of color. The data we collected proved incredibly valuable and what we learned drove us to thoughtfully and deliberately expand and increase representation in all directions. What an honor (and a responsibility) to do just that through our ASTC and IF/THEN®-supported Women in Air & Space exhibits.

The next step in the process required us to conceive of and design an exhibit vehicle of sorts through which we might tell the stories of women in air and space. After many conversations, we identified a table—symbolic of the kitchen table where we might gather to break bread and share stories. We kept our multigenerational audience in mind as we imagined an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-guided, multimodal interactive table with a little something for many ages and learning styles. We married updatable digital content with traditional text and graphics to allow our content to grow over time. In collaboration with Sawdust and Levity, who built our customized table, we made it possible for our guests to find and examine artifacts through tubes and behind doors, watch videos, and enjoy hands-on activities as classic as an abacus. From construction to curating, design to drill bits, our allied teams brought their skills to the table, quite literally!

Part of that work included finding and telling the stories of women’s firsts; of their achievements and their contributions to air and space spanning three centuries. The IF/THEN® program made a positive impact on this important part of the exhibit development process. Once introduced to the strong, smart, and inspirational IF/THEN® Ambassador resources made available for our use, our team recognized an even greater potential for our women’s timeline. The Ambassadors’ stories—complemented by engaging photographs and videos—added that level of modern relevancy and workforce inspiration necessary to complete the circle. Through the inclusion of IF/THEN® Ambassadors, we told a fuller range of rich stories, from the first woman carried aloft in a balloon in the nineteenth century to women working in aerospace today.

The opportunity to feature IF/THEN® Ambassadors led to some important permanent exhibit firsts for the Air Zoo. For example, through Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, we’re honored to highlight not only the first female astrophysicist in an Air Zoo exhibit, but also the first Muslim woman represented on the exhibit floor. Likewise, we are grateful to share Dana Bolles’ story. Not only do we admire her skills in science communications for NASA, but we also appreciate her role model as both an LGBTQ advocate and a woman working to change public perceptions of people with disabilities. Dana is the first person with visible disabilities to be featured in one of our permanent exhibits.

We fell for STEAM advocate Jasmine Sadler’s bright smile and how she introduces herself as a “dancing rocket scientist.” We respect how aerospace engineer Sydney Hamilton calls herself a triple threat: “Young, black and I’m a female.” Our future scientists and engineers will find motivation in Jasmine and Sydney’s stories.

At the Air Zoo, we love learning. That’s one of the reasons we had to feature aircraft maintenance technician Nikki Sereika, who credits her father with inspiring her to one day maintain 737 aircraft by teaching her the value of maintaining her car. We felt that her story would resonate with our guests as they think about their future careers. Our location in the Great Lakes State means many of our guests enjoy water recreation, just like physicist and science innovator, Adele Luta, who puts her SCUBA diving skills to use in her work for NASA.

Through the inclusion of these outstanding IF/THEN ambassadors as well as the stories of over 50 women in our Women in Air & Space Interactive Timeline and We Did It: The Riveting Real Rosies of WWII exhibits, we’ve markedly increased our representation of women and minorities.

But we won’t stop here.

With warm thanks to the resources, support, and all we’ve learned through our experience with ASTC and IF/THEN®, an Initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the Air Zoo will continue to boldly expand representation by building it directly into our exhibition development process. As we reflect on this meaningful project and look ahead to how we can expand diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and representation, we’re inspired by a quote by IF/THEN® Ambassador Nikki Serekia that resonates with the Air Zoo’s core value of innovation: “Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and don’t wait for anyone else to do it.”

This post was contributed by the Air Zoo. A version of this post also appears on the Air Zoo blog.

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