SFO Museum History

SFO Museum was established in 1980 as the Bureau of Exhibitions and Cultural Education by the Airport Commission to provide cultural enrichment through museum exhibitions in public spaces at San Francisco International Airport. The program’s statement of purpose was to “humanize the Airport environment” and to “showcase the unique cultural life of the Bay Area” for the Airport community, local travelers, and a truly global audience. As the Bureau evolved and grew to develop and program exhibition galleries in all four SFO Terminal buildings, its name was changed to San Francisco Airport Museums in 1997 and then again to SFO Museum in 2010.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the SFO exhibitions program gained a global reputation for presenting broad-ranged, engaging, and often unexpected subjects, particularly in the area of material culture. As an exclusively loan-based, non-collecting organization, the curatorial selection favored a broad topical calendar across a spectrum of subject areas. Design, craft, folk art, ethnography, science, technology, history, cuisine, costume, and popular culture have been liberally applied as audience numbers grew from 20 million to more than 50 million annual passengers. 

In the mid-1990s, added dimensions for the SFO exhibitions program were envisioned, driven largely by the overwhelmingly positive public response to such programs and a $2.8 billion capital improvement to create an International Terminal Complex. In addition to planning new gallery spaces for expanding the exhibitions program, the idea of a self-contained aviation museum, library, and archive with a permanent collection was proposed and realized. The new facility was officially named the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum for the 1981–95 Airport Director. It opened upon the activation of the International Terminal on December 10, 2000, in a new 11,000-square foot interior space designed by Fong & Chan Architects as an architectural adaptation of the Airport’s own 1937 passenger lobby. 

Originating more than four decades ago as a pioneering exhibitions program adapting available spaces for the public presentation of museum exhibitions, SFO Museum now reaches millions of Airport visitors annually with a broad range of innovative programming in twenty galleries located throughout the terminals of San Francisco International Airport. With plans to expand upon a world-class aviation collection and research facility; ambitious initiatives to broaden its digital outreach and provide deeper connections for online visitors; and the promise of far-reaching exhibitions in several new galleries currently under development, SFO Museum is well positioned to continue its role as a guide and partner to those visitors curious about their world and the breadth of creativity it has inspired. 

For information on the governance of SFO Museum, please click here.