Site Analysis Peterson Air and Space Museum

Heritage Tourism is a multifaceted term that covers a variety of historical sites and museums. The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines it as “ traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”1  Central to the idea of heritage tourism, then, is the idea of an authentic representation of someone or something from the past. The Peterson Air and Space Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado is dedicated to informing and educating the public on the history and heritage of Peterson Air Force Base.2  The Peterson Air and Space Museum gives an accurate portrayal of the history of the Air Force base and the men who sacrificed their life defending America. However, the museum’s outreach, website and social media presence could be improved to better fulfill their mission of informing and educating the public.

The Peterson Air and Space Museum presents several different facets of heritage within their exhibits. The whole museum is presenting the heritage of the United States Air Force. There are sixteen different Air Force planes ranging from World War II through the 1980s that visitors can learn about on the tour. Exhibits show what life was like for an Air Force Pilot during the Second World War, including the types of uniforms they wore, the supplies and equipment they carried with them on their missions, and the types of planes pilots flew. An exhibit on German Prisoner of War camps showed what life would be life for a pilot who was captured behind enemy lines. The museum also tells a personal story of Lieutenant Edward Peterson, whom the base and museum are named after. Lt Peterson was a native of Colorado and served as a test pilot for his squadron. He was killed in a test flight in 1942. His personal effects, uniform, pictures, and oral histories from his family are all exhibited at the museum. Local Colorado Springs history is also presented. The land that is currently Peterson Air Force Base was the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport in the 1930s. The main building of the museum was once the terminal for the airport. Several exhibits discuss the history of air travel in Colorado Springs, and mention famous individuals who once flew in and out of the airport.

The various types of heritage presented results in several sites that can become markers for the visitor. The Morning Star, a Cold War era radar plane, can be either an identifier or a symbol of the museum, or the Air Force itself. Same with exhibits about Lt. Peterson or the Colorado Springs Airport. Any of these exhibits can be recognized by the visitor, becoming a marker of the site in his mind. In the same idea a visitor could take one of the planes or displays and turn it into a symbol of the museum as a whole, the Air Force, or Colorado Springs. Since so much is presented about the history of the Air Force most visitors would probably leave with some kind of marker about the Air Force, which does help the museum achieve its mission.3

One of the best things about this museum is that it has such an authentic feel to it with no sense of commercialization. Meaning one gets the sense that the planes just landed one day from a mission and are awaiting their next orders. The artifacts, displays and even volunteers are authentic Air Force material. The sixteen planes anchored around the museum have plaques that tell what type of plane they are, and what years they were active.  The Old City Hanger features a World War II F-47N Thunderbolt. The restoration process is detailed in the exhibit, leaving no question of the planes authenticity. The EC-121T Warning Star is open for tours. Guests are able to climb up into the plane, see where the pilots sat, where the radar man sat, and learn about the jobs of the various crew members. One of the volunteers at the museum flew on the Warning Star for fourteen years. If he is on duty that day he is the one in charge of giving tours of the plane. His intimate knowledge with the aircraft combined with his personal stories make the visitor feel as if they have flown on a mission as well.

The Morning Star

Since the museum is housed on a working Air Force Base the average visitor has to be really interested in visiting. Non Department of Defense personnel must check in at the base visitors center before being able to visit the museum. However, that should not dissuade visitors. Any number of people would be interested in the heritage the museum presents. Colorado Springs and Colorado natives can learn more about the history of their state. Air Force or military personnel and families can expand their knowledge of aircrafts and Air Force history, or even possibly connect and share stories with past servicemen. A volunteer said that members of Lt. Peterson’s family visit the museum every year or so as a way to remember and honor his life and sacrifice. The hands on atmosphere of the museum makes it a perfect place to bring young children and families. Little children can be up close and personal inside a big plane, even if they do not understand the historical ramifications of World War II and the Cold War.

The museum’s brochure supports its mission of informing and educating the public. It contains a very clear map and description of each plane along with museum information. Visitors are shown a brief film at the start of their tour, which educated them on the history of the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. The volunteers are very friendly and seemed always ready to tell their personal stories of their time as pilots in the Air Force.  The museum’s website and social media presence is the weakest component of the museum. The website appearance is a bit obnoxious and hard to understand. Visitors who have never been to the museum are confronted first thing with a list of paperwork needed to gain access to the base. While this information is important, it could be presented in a gentler, less overwhelming way. For a visitor who is not familiar with military protocol or who has never been on a military base they may feel there is too much paperwork and decide to forgo their visit to the museum. The front-page of the website does not do a good job showcasing all the planes and exhibits the museum offers.4 They could do a better job showcasing their main attractions, like the Warning Star plane with pictures, descriptions or visitor testimonials. Social Media is sporadic. The museum does not have regular social media presence. They usually post every few days. Their content varies to include posts about Air Force History in general, today in history events, and some pictures or text about an exhibit or plane housed at the museum.5

Another major thing that is lacking is that the museum does not hold many educational programs or special events. A volunteer mentioned giving tours for a boy scout group, but no school field trips, or summer camps, or guest speakers. The website does not feature an event calendar or mention any special events. The lack of programming seems a shame for a site with so many things to offer. School children and members of the community could learn about their area, the history of the Air Force, and about certain historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis through a program or event. In order to inform and educate the public a site has to reach out to the public and let the public know they exist. Programming is a great way to become part of the community and not just an attraction.

Overall Peterson Air and Space Museum is heritage site worthy of visitation. Those interested in Colorado history, military history, or those with family in the Air Force would enjoy and learn a lot from the exhibits and tours that are offered. While the museum could improve their website, social media and community outreach, they are authentic. The authenticity of the exhibits and planes lends an air of authority and believability to the whole museum. It is better for a site to be authentic and lack a fancy website then for a site to be making up history.

  1. See Heritage Tourism Defined
  2. See Peterson Air and Space Museum Website
  3. See Dean MacCannell’s book The Tourist A New Theory of the Leisure Class. I know as a visitor myself the Morning Star Plane made the biggest impact on me and is my marker of the site.
  4. See Museum website
  5. See Facebook page

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