Frequently Asked Questions

Is the whole collection online?

Not yet, but that’s our goal.

How many objects are in the collection?

We have over 33,000 objects in our Museum collection, over 109,000 objects in our Archives collection, and over 8,000 books and 600 periodical titles in our Library collection.

What’s the difference between the museum, archive, and library collections?

The Museum collection primarily holds three-dimensional objects in a broad range of media, such as model airplanes, uniforms, and insignia, as well as some two-dimensional objects, such as posters.

The Library collection holds literary properties and publications, typically bound books and periodicals.

The Archive collection primarily holds two-dimensional objects such as company newsletters and publications, technical manuals and drawings, promotional materials, oral histories, photography, digital and analog film, audio media, and ephemera.

A note about our Archive: The word “archive” generally refers to a collection of permanent records for an organization, government, or corporation that has been arranged and described by archival professionals using a standardized methodology. The term can also refer to an organization that keeps the historical records for the above groups or the papers of an individual. For example, a financial institution maintains an archive of its foundational, legal, and operational records; the National Archives preserves the records of the United States federal government; California State University, Fullerton, holds the papers of the author Philip K. Dick.

SFO Museum’s Aviation Archive is not a repository for any of the San Francisco International Airport’s records. The Museum uses the term to distinguish the two-dimensional paper collection from the three-dimensional “Museum” collection. As an overview, the Aviation Archive contains objects such as:

  • Photographic materials from both corporations and individuals
  • Materials published by airlines, airports, or aircraft manufacturers such as employee newsletters, annual reports, union agreements, and manuals
  • Airline passenger amenities like menus, route maps, and safety information cards
  • Promotional items like brochures, advertisements, and luggage labels produced by airlines, airports, and aircraft manufacturers
  • Documents and collections from individuals involved in aviation including oral histories, memoirs, scrapbooks, and career history documents
  • Philatelic materials like airmail flight covers, postcards, and stamps
How do the categories and subcategories work?

Within each collection, we classify objects by categories and subcategories. Categories are fairly broad, such as model aircraft, and subcategories provide a layer of refinement. Subcategories under model aircraft include three different types of model aircraft: model airplane; model airplane, flying boat; and model airship.

Why can dates be different for identical or similar objects?

Dates can be a real challenge. For example, a specific airline uniform design may be in circulation for several years. Two similar-looking flight attendant dresses could be dated “1968” and “1970s” and both dates could be right; one could be the year that the dress was first worn by its owner and the other could be a date from the range the dress was actively worn.

Why do some airlines appear to have multiple names?

Many airlines and airports have undergone name changes at one point or another, due to mergers, rebranding, dedication opportunities, or other reasons. Take United Airlines, for example. The airline can trace its lineage to the United Aircraft Corporation, which formed in 1928. A variety of mergers followed, and the company became United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UATC) in early 1929. In 1931, UATC formed United Air Lines, which in turn became United Airlines in 1974. If the name of the airline or airport is on an object, that is the name we use for cataloging, otherwise we catalog objects with the name in use at the time of the object’s date.

Is your Oral History Program active?

Yes, SFO Museum is currently seeking interviews with people who work or have worked in commercial aviation (pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, customer service agents, ground crew, management, operations, and others), including the experiences of members of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] and LGBTQ communities and women. If you have a story to tell, please contact the Oral History Program staff at collections@flysfo.com or (650) 821-9900.

Why do the images vary in quality?

We aim to use the best images that we have at our disposal. When we receive objects into the collection, we take an unpolished, unedited photo for identification purposes. The process of taking studio photographs with proper lighting, a neutral background, and some color-correcting requires significant time and staffing resources. Likewise, we generally reserve digital scanning of paper documents such as timetables and brochures to their covers only. In order to present as much of our collection online now, we have decided to share some less-than-perfect photographs in the belief that a mediocre image is better than none at all. Our website is continually updated with studio photographs and additional objects.

Where can I see these objects in person?

As with most museums, most of the objects in our collection are not on view due to space constraints and other considerations. Additionally, certain types of objects are sensitive to light and can’t be exhibited for long periods of time; they may fade or deteriorate if exposed for too long, so their display time is limited. Sometimes objects are lent to other museums for display, and sometimes objects are receiving treatment in our conservation lab or are being studied in storage by our curators.

We present rotating exhibitions from our permanent collection in the galleries located within the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. This facility is located prior to the security checkpoint on the A-side of the International Terminal Main Hall. Click here for a link to hours and directions. Additional long-term aviation exhibitions can be found pre-security in Terminal 3, level 1, and in SkyTerrace, located pre-security in Terminal 2, level 4.

Can I use the images for personal use or publication?

The personal use of images from our collection is allowed. For publication or other professional use, please complete the Image Permissions form. A link to this form is also embedded in the website footer.

I have additional information to tell you about your object(s). How do I reach you?

Great! At the bottom of every object page, there is a Comments and Suggestions form that sends us an email inclusive of the object’s accession number and URL. Including optional information such as your name allows us to get to know you and we will respond to you within a few days if you include your email address.

What’s an accession number and why is it important?

An accession number is a unique number assigned to every object in a museum collection and provides identifying information about when and how the object came to the museum. While numbering systems can differ between museums, ours is as follows: 2000.088.001 signifies that this is the first object (.001) within the 88th recorded group (.088) received by SFO Museum in the year 2000 (2000).

I own a similar object and want to know what it’s worth. Can you help me?

We are unable to provide assistance with object valuations. General information about appraisals can be found on these websites, which are listed in no particular order:

Online auction sites can also be a means to find comparable information based on sales.

Why aren’t the cats/typewriters/guitars I saw displayed in Terminal 2 here?

Only objects from our Aviation Collection are featured here. Many of the objects that we display in our rotating exhibitions, such as the maneki neko, typewriters, and surf boards, were borrowed from various lenders and have since returned to their owners. Many of our past exhibitions can be found here.

Where is the public art?

Only objects from our Aviation Collection are featured here. The public art at SFO, provided by the San Francisco Arts Commission, can be found on this page.

Can I check out or borrow a book from the Library?

The Library Collection is non-lending and non-circulating, and available to the public for research by appointment on a case-by-case basis. More information about making a research appointment can be found here.

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