Take Flight: Vintage 727 Exhibit Soars to New Heights

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In 1994, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry opened “Take Flight,” one of their most popular exhibits featuring the fuselage of a retired Boeing 727 passenger plane. Today, more than 25 years later, in collaboration with MSI’s team, Studio Matthews (exhibit designers) and Belle & Wissell (media experience designers) have redesigned the exhibit’s displays while updating the story of commercial aviation for 21st century visitors.

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It is an ambitious program: update and redesign a much-loved museum exhibit featuring the vintage fuselage of a Boeing 727 while telling the story of passenger jet travel and conveying the basics of commercial aviation to audiences.

Seattle-based SEGD member firms Studio Matthews and Belle & Wissell rose to the occasion by reimagining “Take Flight” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) and updating this popular exhibit to be even more relevant and engaging to a new generation of visitors.

The installation of the Boeing 727 was big news back in 1994. Thousands watched in Chicago as the passenger jet (constructed by Boeing in 1964 and retired by United Airlines in 1991) was taken off a barge, carried across Lake Shore Drive and moved inside the Museum of Science and Industry, where one of the Museum’s neoclassical columns was removed to allow enough space for the 727’s fuselage to be brought inside!

Once inside the Museum, workers installed the 727 in the Transportation Hall and cantilevered its fuselage from a balcony overlooking the first floor.

“United’s 727 airplane, dramatically positioned high above the Museum’s main floor, has been a one-of-a-kind sight that has amazed millions of guests,” said MSI’s President and CEO Chevy Humphrey. “We’re excited to showcase the plane in a new way that highlights modern advances in aviation.”

Studio Matthews and Belle & Wissell highlight those advances through new experiences designed to engage today’s audiences—25 years after the 727 was first installed. Their biggest challenge: seamlessly incorporating a huge volume of new content, including how modern planes are designed and assembled and the basics of mechanized flight: lift, thrust, drag, takeoff, in-flight operation, and landing.

“A significant component of the renovation involved unifying numerous small exhibits into one cohesive narrative,” says Kristine Matthews, Principal at Studio Matthews. “But these stories come together in a 150-feet-long mural displayed on the gallery wall facing the plane.”

The mural takes visitors on a behind-the-scenes journey, revealing the complex systems that people use to build new planes; deliver those planes to airlines; guide take-off and landing at airports; and track flights and passengers around the world. The mural incorporates two large-screen displays with live flight tracker feeds: one shows every plane coming and going at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, while the other shows all flights in the air globally.

And while Kristine and her team created the overall design package—including a cohesive graphics program visually unifying all the different displays—Belle & Wissell designed and implemented the exhibit’s interactives. One in particular, titled “The Flock,” is an interactive touch table where visitors can explore two dozen model planes suspended from the ceiling and arranged to depict the chronology of aircraft development over time.

“Our team was particularly captivated by the process of creating “The Flock” interactive table,” says Gabe Kean, Principal at Belle & Wissell. “Beyond researching and telling fascinating stories about this set of aircraft, and representing the progression of aviation advances, it was also a great challenge to bring the physical ‘flock’ of airplane models to life.”

Gabe and his team—including designers, content developers, and programmers—did this by using algorithmic animations. The interactive allows visitors to learn about each plane in fun and engaging ways, but also to virtually rearrange the planes to compare their speed, range, and chronology.

Inside the 727 fuselage, Studio Matthews created new displays within three connected galleries or “cabins” which introduce visitors to three different aspects of flying. In the front cabin, visitors step into a time capsule where the cockpit, seats, and décor look as they did when the plane first welcomed passengers in 1964. Inside the middle cabin, story stations describe what happens to our bodies when flying, including the causes of jet lag and the effects of turbulence and dryness of plane air. In the rear cabin, walls peel away to reveal the 727’s inner structure and machinery—parts of the plane the flying public never sees. Transparent sections of floor allow visitors to look right through to the luggage in the cargo hold and watch working landing gear, which deploys every hour over visitors in the gallery below.

The Museum of Science and Industry is famous for its displays of macro artifacts—including a U-505 submarine, Pioneer Zephyr train, and Apollo 8 spacecraft module among others—all designed to spark amazement and inspire scientific curiosity with visitors. “Take Flight” is the latest in this exhibit genre with Studio Matthews and Belle & Wissell updating the design and content to bring a vintage Boeing 727 to life for millions of museum visitors.