Working with a collection of radioactive aircraft instruments

Sharon Norquest, Amelia Kile, and David Peters


The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum holds approximately 5,500 instruments that pertain to flight management, navigation, and engine and system performance. In fall 2013, a project was undertaken to outfit a large display case at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center with 86 instruments from the collection. The display illustrates how the technology of instrumentation has advanced over the past 100 years as we progressed from the analog to the digital age.

Included in this collection are both unique prototypes and mass-produced gauges from civilian and military aircraft. Although the collection is vast, many of the instruments contain one common hazardous feature: radium paint. This glow-in-the-dark paint allowed pilots to fly at night and read the instruments while maintaining their night vision in a low-lit cockpit. Even though the paint no longer glows in the dark, the radium continues to emit measurable radiation. This paint presents the challenge of conserving, storing, and displaying a collection of radioactive objects in a museum.

Questions that arose and were addressed during the project included the following. What, if any, ideals must be compromised when dealing with a large collection that poses health hazards to the public and to staff? Is the workflow altered because of additional outside regulation, institution-wide requirements, and safety and health concerns?

A safe working environment for the staff and a safe display case for the public were established. As the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has a large collection of radioactive objects, the collection is licensed by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In addition to conservation work for the display, tasks were completed to meet the requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. These tasks will be discussed and an explanation of equipment used to record radiation levels will be provided, as we developed a practical system for working with a radioactive collection.

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2015 | Miami | Volume 22