Inside the International Women’s Air and Space Museum


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The annual Cleveland Air Show reminds us of the rich aviation history of our city and the state of Ohio. Locals have heard of the Cleveland Air Races, seen historic airplanes at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, and passed or flew over the famous hangar at NASA’s Glenn Research Center near Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

Marge Hurlburt and the Lucky Gallon plane, which flew in Cleveland National Air Races in 1946Yet some Clevelanders may not be aware of the important role women play in aviation history and the Burke Lakefront Airport Museum that celebrates them. The International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) features over 20,000 interesting artifacts and stories about over 6,000 female aviators from around the world, as well as in our own backyard.

Celebrate its 45e anniversary this year, IWASM has been located in the lobby of Burke Lakefront Airport for 23 years, having surpassed its original location in the Asahel Wright home in Centerville, Ohio. And it just keeps growing from there: CEO Sara Fisher and her team recently completed their five-year strategic plan, which includes improving the cataloging of items in the collection, updating some older exhibits. and the development of more interactive and virtual programming.

As the museum looks to its future, let’s take a look back at some fascinating facts about IWASM:

1. 13 women qualified for the Mercury space program.
Wally Funk, who recently became the oldest woman to fly in space aboard the Blue Origin spacecraft, was one of the “Mercury 13” women. The museum has an exhibit on this notable group of women, who passed the same physical exams as male applicants during NASA’s astronaut selection process in 1959, but were excluded from the space program. Bernice Steadman, who was another member of this famous group, was a co-founder of IWASM.

2. The Wright brothers had a manager – their sister.
Katharine Wright was a teacher, suffragist, and advocate for her older brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Katharine played an important role in the family business from 1908 to 1915, assisting her brothers with research and speaking on their behalf at events around the world. Her exhibit at the museum includes official and family photographs, documents, and a dress she wore when the Wright family visited President Taft in 1909.

3. Bessie Coleman broke barriers with fearless determination.
Bessie Coleman, aka “Brave Bessie”, became the first African-American woman to obtain her pilot’s license in 1921. Repeatedly rejected by American flight schools because of her race and gender, Bessie eventually traveled in France to gain its wings. Her exhibit tells the story of her career and how she paved the way for other women of color to pursue vocations in aviation and aerospace.

Bessie Coleman exhibition4. Many women in Cleveland have had a connection with aviation.
You can listen to their stories in the Oral History Collection on the IWASM website. These interviews were recorded for the museum by Cleveland State University. These include Thelma Miller, who was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP); Mariane Dyson, who worked in mission control at NASA; and Ruth Reep, who rebuilt her own plane and flew to work as a secretary in downtown Cleveland.

5. Clevelanders can continue to learn about women in aviation through e-book discussions and IWASM in-person events.

A virtual exhibit created by Americorps on the museum’s website provides a profile of dozens of different women who are featured in the museum. In addition, the museum regularly hosts virtual book discussions moderated by IWASM administrators. The quarterly in-person event, the “Dinner with a Slice of History” series, features speakers on a variety of female-focused aviation topics.

The IWASM Museum is open for self-guided tours seven days a week, except holidays and during Cleveland Browns games. The museum office, gift shop and Fay Gillis Wells research center are open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This article was written as part of the “Now That’s Fresh” series in partnership with Literary Cleveland. This six-week course helps emerging journalists learn about the reporting process and get published for the first time.

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About Carlos V. Mitchell

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