At Large  February 13, 2023  Rebecca Salem

A Cure for the Common Layover: Airport Museums

Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju exhibition at San Francisco Airport (SFO)

Long layovers are synonymous with exhaustion, boredom, and anxiety as beleaguering travelers wait for their connecting flights. While usual activities during layovers include duty-free shopping or napping, several airports have introduced curated spaces of art and objects into their terminals as a respite from the travel grind. This phenomenon has been slow in the making, but more and more exhibition cases and spaces are cropping up at airports around the globe. Museums are typically destination points, distinct locales of a day out, but within travel hubs, these exhibitions are likely to be brief stopping points for passersby rather than destinations unto themselves.

Wikimedia Commons

The Rijksmuseum at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam

In 1980, the Airport Commission of San Francisco established the Bureau of Exhibitions and Cultural Educations, now known as the SFO Museum, with the intent to “humanize the Airport environment.” Today the museum has twenty-five galleries across the airport’s terminals ranging from wall cases to exhibitions along walkways. They offer travelers the opportunity to admire them briefly while hustling to the gate or to linger and study the displays with care. Exhibitions currently on display include: “More than a Meal: Airline Meal Service Sets, 1960s-80s” (until July 9, 2023), “Japonisme: A Passion for Japan” (until April 2, 2023), and “Stone Sculptures of Zimbabwe” (until May 21, 2023).

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport features a branch of the Rijksmuseum that rotates its exhibitions with material from the museum’s collections. Located in the “Holland Boulevard” section of the airport, Rijksmuseum Schiphol advertises itself as a place to escape the noise of the airport and experience nineteenth-century Dutch paintings. Open 24 hours a day, the collection covers 162 square meters of space and has a shop attached, welcoming travelers visiting Amsterdam as well as those simply passing through the airport to witness some of the country’s artistic productions.

Paul G. Johnston

The museum at Athens International Airport

A different approach to the airport museum can be found at Athens International Airport where the museum displays a permanent collection of archaeological materials that were discovered as part of the rescue excavations done prior to the construction of the airport. Visitors can build an understanding of the materials used on the site thousands of years ago. Similar to Schiphol’s Rijksmuseum, the objects act as a teaser for those yet to be seen throughout the country or as a final farewell to those already experienced.


Seeing more than 35 million passages a year, Turkey’s Istanbul Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world and possesses a dedicated exhibition space as well as curated installations throughout the airport. Within the dedicated museum space, the current exhibition, “Faces of Throne: 12,000-Year-Old Story of Anatolia,” narrates a history of Turkey from the Neolithic Period to the twentieth century through over three hundred artifacts from 29 museums across Turkey, including objects from Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük. The museum even possesses the world’s first showcase robot, which rotates objects on display. For those not heading to the museum proper, multiple exhibition spaces throughout the airport offer material ranging from children’s art to pioneers of modern science.

Rebecca A. Salem

Roman Sculptures in “Turkey’s Treasures: Faces of the Throne” exhibition at the Istanbul Airport Museum

Airport museums have expanded into a truly global trend. Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport features multiple art installations, recently even placing an original Edvard Munch on display. Australia’s Canberra Airport provides artworks both within and outside of the airport building, including “Roos” by Jeff Thomson and “Four Cubes” by Haruyuki Uchida, both presently on display. At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, the Jaya He New Museum presents over seven thousand works, representing arts and crafts from across India on a multi-story Art Wall. Fittingly, time is the subject matter of a recent exhibition in Terminal 3 of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, featuring works from nearby the archaeological areas of Ostia Antica and the Necropolis of Isola Sacra. A mosaic depicts the zodiac while six sculptures personify and represent different interpretations of time, appropriate for a location where time is of the essence for making or missing a flight.  


As more and more travelers take to the skies each year, airports are competing on many fronts as global travel hubs, and museums have become a popular means for airports to stand out from the crowd. Ranging from temporary exhibitions to permanent installations, airport museums offer a pleasant and recuperating pause from the stress and pressure of regional and international travel. While they currently serve as brief sojourns from long hauls, perhaps one day these museums and exhibitions might become travel destinations in their own right, their tickets offering admission not only to the museum but to the skies themselves.

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