FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - On a recent weekday afternoon, the C.R. Smith Museum at American Airlines' Fort Worth campus was alive with the sound of laughter, as school-aged children raced the clock to get suitcases loaded into a cargo hold.
The Dallas Morning News reports nearby, a young girl sat behind the controls in an MD-80 cockpit, while others sat huddled around computer screens in a mock operations center making split-second decisions about how to handle a storm that had popped up on the East Coast.
Two years ago, the scene wouldn't have been possible. That's changed thanks to a multimillion-dollar makeover that has seen the museum's exhibits reimagined for the 21st century, coupling the romance of a bygone Jet Age with new, interactive displays that convey the complexity of a modern airline.
In the process, American aims to preserve its history for a new generation of employees while spreading the wonders of aviation to students and North Texans.
The renovation also positions the more than 40,000-square-foot museum at the heart of American's burgeoning campus along State Highway 360, where next year the company plans to open a five-building headquarters complex alongside its existing operations center and training facilities.
"The museum captures who we are. It captures the breadth and diversity of our people, both locally in D-FW and across the world," said Jonathan Pierce, director of Campus Culture and Change at American. "It tells the story to team members ... you bring folks who are coming in for training, for induction, for interviews. The museum is the anchor of the campus."
The cost of renovation at the independent, nonprofit museum was not disclosed, with American Airlines providing the lead gift and additional donations from the Boeing Company and PacMin.
Opened in 1993, the C.R. Smith Museum was an ode to American's high-flying history and the museum's namesake, who spent 35 years shaping the young airline as CEO dating back to the 1930s.
But with each passing year, the museum's largely static displays became more dated, as the museum industry moved toward more hands-on and interactive experiences. That began to change in 2016 with the hiring of Uli Das, the former executive director of Kansas City-area Museum at Prairiefire and, before that, as a director at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"Where it started was a sense this museum had the potential to fit into the broader changes and strategies at American Airlines," said Das, the C.R. Smith Museum's executive director.
Over the course of interviews and focus groups with hundreds of employees, a consistent theme emerged, Das said, and from it, a vision for the new museum: Put the people of American Airlines front and center.
"There are lots and lots of aviation museums around, but most of them focus on the hardware...the engines, the aircraft," she said. "What we're trying to do is explain who runs an airline and how they do it ... in a region and a community where aviation is so important, that seemed like a story that really needed to be told."
One of the most prominent additions to the renovated museum space is a series of seven interactive digital screens, each one dedicated to a different aspect of the airline's operation - from flight crews to reservations to customer service - and explained through videos featuring real American employees.
Other displays explain fundamental airline concepts, like hub and spoke airports or engine maintenance.
Also new is a kiosk for American employees and visitors to share their own stories and memories of the airline industry, recordings of which will form a unique historical archive and also serve as material for future exhibits.
The museum space still features plenty of airline artifacts that trace the evolution of the company and the industry - from old travel posters and route maps to an array of uniforms, tablewares and early Admirals Club memorabilia - as well as the Flagship Knoxville, a restored Douglas DC-3 that entered American's fleet in 1940 and remains a focal point of the museum.
After 15 months of planning, design and renovation, Das' job is in many ways just getting started.
Exhibits have been designed to make them easier to update with new information or visuals and an empty corner of the museum awaits the first in a series of rotating exhibitions.
The museum has a long history of working with school and community groups, but Das said there's more that can be done, from exposing teenagers to potential airlines careers to introducing children who've never flown on an airplane to the world of aviation.
"From an education standpoint, the sky's the limit," she said. "I'm really excited about all the opportunities we have to build new programs and really connecting the classroom side with the real world side."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com