Behind the Scenes: The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

This is part of AFGE’s Behind-the-Scenes series.

Carl Bobrow, museum specialist

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. is America’s most visited museum with 6.2 million visitors last year. Whether it’s Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Spacesuit, a Lunar Module, or the 1903 Wright Flyer, you don’t have to be an aviation enthusiast to appreciate the museum’s unique artifacts that reflect the American spirit of exploration and innovation.

But did you know what goes into bringing to life the museum artifacts that are part of who we are?

Each of the museum’s amazing exhibitions is carefully researched and created by a team of experts that include a museum specialist like Carl Bobrow, who’s a member of AFGE Local 2463 and an expert on aviation in Imperial Russian, pre-communism.

As a museum specialist for more than 18 years, Carl has been involved in several of the museum’s popular exhibitions, including spacesuit, aircraft, art, and poster collections. He’s also involved in the museum’s current massive revitalization to recreate a whole new museum environment with new space and galleries.

The Air and Space museum has two locations – one in Washington, D.C. and the other near Washington-Dulles Airport in northern Virginia. It has on display thousands of aviation artifacts with thousands more in storage, and when it’s their turn to shine in an exhibition hall, it’s the job of a museum specialist like Carl that helps make it happen.

We sat down with Carl so he can answer some of the most pressing questions we have about his work and why being an AFGE member is important to him.

1. What is your agency's mission and why it’s important?

The Smithsonian Institution represents the people of the United States. It’s a national museum. The mission of the National Air and Space Museum is the same as the rest of the Smithsonian Institution, which is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It is an integral part of who we are as human to fly to other stars, other planets. I support that by taking care of the collections, which is my primary responsibility.

2. What does your typical day look like? Can you take us behind the scenes?

It is so varied. I will handle objects. I will work with exhibit staff. I will photograph objects. I will catalog objects. Sometimes I’ll deal with the Registrar’s Office for the museum’s revitalization project. Other times I’ll work with individuals and guide them through projects. Very often I work with the curatorial staff directly because I have a direct knowledge of the collection. A new object will come in and they want to check the status of the object. Or there’s an object in the collection that was collected 25 years ago, and they want to look at it. So it will require the removal of the object from a storage container that would have been in one of the storage buildings that we have on site, which requires the use of equipment or a crane or material handling equipment in the opening of this storage container and removing the object and examining it. And because of my knowledge and background in the history of technology, very often I discuss and consult with the curator.

I’m one of the more senior members of collections processing unit. As such I’m often tasked with special projects. Recently I had to go out to California to assist the shipment of an object from a NASA lab to here and make sure that it gets properly handled and packed by the company that would be shipping it because it's not something that you just hand out to a normal shipping company. It was the Kepler Technology Demonstrator. The Kepler spacecraft observed distant worlds. It can actually see there are planets around stars, so right now we know there are other worlds out there. So my responsibility was to ensure that it gets here safely.

3. What do people get wrong about your agency?

The diversity, if you will, of what Air and Space Museum is about. In one case we are celebrating the advanced humanity’s ability to fly as well as to reach into deep space. We are exploring worlds. We have spacecraft that are on other planets and that are passing other planets. When they come to the museum, they see the depth and breadth of what that is and a celebration of humanity’s ability to do this. They walk away with the realization of the magnitude of what it really is. If you were to try to spend a day at the museum to see everything and really get a depth of what everything is, you probably need a couple of days. You probably cannot do it in just one day. And that's why I think people keep coming back because there is so much to see.

4. What do you want the American people to know about your work?

That it's their museum. I was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I moved down here to the Air and Space Newseum in Washington, D.C. in 1999. Nine-eleven rolled around. And much like everyone else not just in America but around the world, I was shocked and appalled and horrified, and it really touched home to me because being a New Yorker – and I have family who are first responders and family who lived just a few blocks away from the event – I had to come to terms with what I was doing. It was a soul-searching moment. This changed the view point. I was not there to help. I had to reflect upon it.

And it came to me that what I was doing was working at the Smithsonian. It's not just for myself but for public service. As a federal employee, I was providing public service to the people of the United States and the world who come to the United States and to the museum and that public service meant a lot to me because I realized I was giving back in that manner. I was very prideful of that because it gave me, ‘Yes, I am giving back,’ and this is in a small way, maybe not as much as the first responders, but I was giving back, and it had meaning and that’s satisfying and that's stuck. Working for the American people is a very important thing and that is how I see it.

5. How did you decide to come to work for the Smithsonian? What is your background?

I had my own private practice as an audio engineer. I was a consulting audio engineer for 25 years. In 1984, I came to a history seminar at the National Air and Space Museum, and within a year, I became a research collaborator with one of the staffers working on the Russian aviation history project. After that we published a book together – Igor Sikorsky, The Russian Years – about aviation in Imperial Russia during the czars’ era. As a result of the publication of our book, we were invited to the 1988 International Symposium on Russian Aeronautics in Moscow. So we went together representing the United States and the Smithsonian and we began collaboration with Russian researchers at that time, which was during Glasnost and Perestroika. We receive materials from their archives. We went to their military archives that had not been visited by Americans. I don't know if anyone had or had not, but my understanding was that we were if not the first some of the first to make it in.

We also were given a tour of Monino Air Museum, which was on a Soviet Air Base. This is all, you know, a big deal. And there was a third member of our group who accompanied us Sergei – the son of Igor Sikorsky (the creator of the helicopter). It was kind of a big deal for the Russians. The three of us spent 10 days in Moscow in the Soviet Union at that time. We continued our research and publications and continued over the years. In 1999, I was nominated as the Alfred V. Verville Fellow – that's a fellowship program here at the National Air and Space Museum. There are three different fellowships. They are fully funded for a year to do independent research. So I did that, and I decided that I wanted to stay at the museum, and I realized that what I wanted to do was to work in collections and have hands-on with the artifacts, the objects. I tried for a position and I was selected for that position after my fellowship ended in 2001.

I'm working on a four-volume book right now with two other authors. It's about aero reconnaissance on the Eastern Front From 1914 to 1918, and it's a perspective of Russians and Germans in the Austro-Hungarian empire, so it's all about World War I.

6. What surprised people the most when you tell them about your work?

Wherever I go – and I’ve traveled around the world – and I told them I work at the National Air and Space Museum, and they say, ‘Oh I love the National Air and Space Museum.’ Because everyone's heard of it, and some of them have actually been here. I think it's the thing about airplanes and rockets and spacecraft. You know people are very interested in them. My wife said I don't come to work, I come to play. I can tell you that at 67 years of age, I get up at 4 in the morning, and I wouldn't do it unless I enjoy what I'm doing.

7. Why is being an AFGE member important to you?

Without union representation, you do not have a voice in your workplace. I think it's truly important for people to understand what union is all about, that unions are a voice. Just as we have a voice in our government, we need to have a voice in our workplace. It’s is very democratic. Unions represent in their own way the finest approaches of what American democracy is. To support and sustain the union, you should be a union member. It is important. There are times when an administration wants to get rid of union representation, that's dangerous. That's why unions are important – to defend the rights of the workers.

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