Something for Everyone

Something for Everyone

Culture and education in an airport terminal

Fans from the Museo de Prehistoria y de las culturas de Valencia, Spain, on display in the INternational Terminal

By Lindsay M. Hitch

May 2001

When the public affairs department at San Francisco International Airport set up holiday entertainment in the terminal some 25 years ago, they didn’t realize where it would lead.
"One of the [city] commissioners kind of liked the idea that we were providing some sort of cultural experience," says Jane Sullivan, manager of marketing and communications.
Moe Burnstein, SFO airport commissioner at the time, convinced city officials that a museum program was worthwhile.
"The idea was basically to humanize it;" explains Sullivan, "To display some local artists as well as represent the different cultures of the people coming through and working here."
The San Francisco Airport Museums program began in 1981 as the Temporary Exhibition Program. Eighteen years later, the museum was officially accredited by the American Association of Museums.

The San Francisco Airport Museums feature rotating exhibits borrowed from collections around the world and an aviation museum and library.
"In San Francisco we like to think we’re different; in a good way. We are different. You come to our airport and you see art," says Sullivan.
The airport museum has full-time staff that organizes some 30 rotating exhibits each year.
"You walk through the airport and you can see African shields, swizzel stick collections, platform shoes; something for everybody, hopefully," Sullivan chuckles.
"And the interesting flip side to this is we have no advertising in our terminals. The idea being that traveling is stressful enough."
With the construction of the International Terminal, the San Francisco Arts Commission helped to bring 18 works of permanent art into the terminal. Additions also include two 60-ft. cases and two exhibition areas with 20 display islands each.
Sullivan explains, "We have an ordinance here that a certain percent of construction dollars on public works projects go into our public arts funds. So that’s how we ended up with this almost $10 million permanent art collection in the new building."
The new terminal is also home to the Aviation Library and the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. The library holds over 6,000 volumes and transcribed interviews with aviation specialists. The Turpen Museum is a replica of the passenger waiting room at San Francisco Airport circa 1937. Both are free to the public.