Planning a night at the museum—except at the airport

Browsing the artwork and history exhibits at San Francisco’s and other airports

While recently in the Bay Area on my own, I went for a short walk but hardly made it a block before discovering an incredibly informative museum introducing “one of the great technological triumphs of the 20th century,” the radio. Glass cases displayed a collection of artifacts, oversized photos from different eras lined the walls, and a curator’s notes grounded the objects with important political, historical, and social contexts. Down the hallway, I found a coffeeshop, a bar, a bookstore, and a food court. I didn’t have much time, but I’ll be back in the area again one night later this week and intend to return. As for the price, it’s entirely free—that is, if you overlook the price of the airline ticket required for access.

I discovered the various exhibits at San Francisco International Airport quite by accident years ago. Whenever arriving at SFO on domestic flights, I did my best to skip the AirTrain and instead stretch my legs with a walk through the International departures hall to reach the BART public transit station, still pondering how the AirTrain’s construction cost $430 million. The pre-security section of the International terminals featured exhibits that would feel very much at home in any larger museum. For example, you can head there now to find: “Caticons: The Cat in Art,” “A Sterling Renaissance: British Silver Design 1957-2018,” “A Legacy of Pride: Gilbert Baker and the 40th Anniversary of the Pride Flag,” and “Isamu Noguchi: Inside and Out.”

But most people going to the airport prefer not to dawdle for long before clearing security. Once you put your shoes back on and repack your laptop, you can find more within the terminals. When flying in or out on United, I’ve often lingered to look at the rotational exhibit located between the two moving walkways leading to gates 76 through 90 in Terminal 3, and the current one “On the Radio” deserves attention. (Its run began on March 10, 2018 and ends on November 4, 2018; also: well done to whichever curatorial copywriter worked in the Regina Spektor shoutout.) With the Bay Area as a hub of modern and futuristic technologies, a bit of historic perspective should be right at home.

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Tune in to broadcasts from London, Buenos Aires, the Vatican, Moscow, and Karachi on this classic
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Radios galore to reinforce brand marketing for commercial aims
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Early radio broadcasting efforts of Charles Herrold with his “arc phone”

During our recent travels as a little family, I’ve noted the typical costs of museum admission for two adults, so I may be primed to appreciate what a treat it is to be able to access such a thorough yet well curated series of displays without needing to pay an additional entry fee. (If I’d flown Alaska or American Airlines, I absolutely would’ve viewed and written about Down-Home Music: The Story of Arhoolie Records instead.)

There’s another all-too-easily overlooked bonus within SFO: a full-fledged public art program. At first glance, the works of art throughout the airport may appear to be quirky elements of airport design, but nope: the San Francisco Arts Collection has brought together a collection to celebrate the Bay Area. You can pick up a paper map in the Terminals or load up the website and take a tour And, little did I know, there’s also a full commercial aviation library and archive, which I dare say warrants some dedicated time for a future visit.

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Eric Staller‘s Spirogyrate (2014) is designed to respond whimsically to travelers’ movements at SFO

Especially when the closest some airports conjure in terms of art are their persistent homages to what may be deemed a late-‘60s, low-ceilinged, abandoned-office-park aesthetic, San Francisco International Airport features a particularly remarkable program. Still, you can often find similar elements wherever you’re waiting for a flight. Look at the line-up in Denver or Philadelphia, or Albany or Tucson, for instance.

At Melbourne Airport, I tried (and failed) to coax Eliza to sleep by pushing her stroller past a row of painted bear sculptures. Shannon Airport features local photography before security. A renovation at Boston’s Logan International Airport added a wall-covering timeline between Terminal C and E, an exhibit rather bulkily named “Four Centuries of Innovation from Massachusetts to the World.” As we waited out a three-hour delay, I was inspired to learn that the history of local innovation honored in my hometown includes the development of the chocolate-chip cookie.

In some cases these kinds of efforts have existed for years, but exhibits often change. And even if they’re long-standing installations you’ve seen before, set aside the time to look with fresh eyes. I’ve found the museum and art program at San Francisco International Airport to be particularly exemplary, but wherever you’re flying from, through, or to, take a break from scrolling through endless social-media updates. And if you happen to be sitting at the departure gate reading about the history of the radio on Wikipedia, you’ll want to stand up and wander down the corridor to experience a glimpse of that history in person.

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