Christopher Browne has been named the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, effective immediately. He has served as acting director since January 2021. Browne first joined the museum as deputy director in 2017, and he has helped lead the museum’s multi-year renovation of its flagship building in Washington, D.C.
As director, Browne will oversee the museum’s two public facilities: the building on the National Mall in Washington, which opened in 1976 and houses many icons of flight, including the original 1903 Wright Flyer and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, which opened in 2003 and holds many more artifacts in an open hangar-like setting. Browne will oversee a staff of about 320 full-time employees, an annual operating budget of over $49 million and the care of a collection of more than 60,000 artifacts.
“The leadership, fundraising acumen and vision Chris has provided the National Air and Space Museum during this exciting period of transformation have been invaluable,” said Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian. “As someone who began my Smithsonian career at Air and Space, I couldn’t be more thrilled that the museum will continue to benefit from his wisdom, creativity and enthusiasm.”
Browne will continue to lead the seven-year renovation of the National Mall museum that began in 2018. All 23 galleries and public spaces will be completely transformed to present the story of flight and space in exciting and engaging new ways. The building was closed March 28 to complete the first new galleries in the west wing of the building, which will open this fall. Renovations of the east wing of the building, which began deinstallation in March, are expected to be completed and the wing reopened in 2025. As deputy director and acting director, Browne has played a critical role in the museum’s plans for renovation, and he has been closely involved in decisions related to exhibition design and themes, artifact selection and project phasing during renovation. His ongoing leadership will ensure a continuity of vision implementation for the project. He also was deeply involved in developing the museum’s strategic plan released in 2021, setting its priorities.
“I am incredibly honored to help lead the nation’s most prominent aviation and aerospace museum,” Browne said. “The ability of this treasured cultural institution to change lives and inspire greatness is unmatched. Our collection, exhibits, scholarship, research, education and storytelling will continue to excite learners and dreamers for years to come.”
Browne has a proven track record for fundraising, and he oversaw the museum’s best fundraising year on record in 2021. He notably oversaw the execution of a historic $200 million gift from Jeff Bezos in 2021, which was the largest gift to the Smithsonian since the Institution’s founding gift from James Smithson in 1846. A $70 million portion of the donation will support the renovation of the National Air and Space Museum, and $130 million will launch a new education center at the museum. Prior to receiving the Bezos gift, the museum was on track to have its second-best year of fundraising, securing an additional $56 million in commitments in 2021.
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the world’s most popular museums. The museum maintains the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft and serves the public through exhibitions, public programs, educational activities, publications and electronic outreach. It is also a vital center for historical research on aviation and spaceflight and related science and technology, and it is home to the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, which performs original research and outreach activities in planetary sciences. The museum has greatly expanded its focus on digital offerings and educational programs over the past several years.
As part of the ongoing renovations, and with part of Bezos’ $200 million gift, the museum will create the Bezos Learning Center in the museum on the National Mall, which will provide programs and activities that inspire students to pursue innovation and explore careers in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and help teachers better utilize the Smithsonian’s collections and expertise.
Before coming to the Air and Space Museum, Browne had an accomplished career in the Navy and in airport management. A graduate of the U.S. Navy’s “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School, he served as a naval flight officer from 1980 to 1985, and from 1986 to 1987, he was a senior operations briefer for the secretary of the Navy and chief of naval operations, where he was awarded the Navy’s Commendation Medal for excellent performance.
Browne’s work in airport management began in 1988 as the manager of operations for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He went on to serve as the airport’s vice president and manager from 1998 to 2005, where he oversaw several large capital projects and coordinated the airport’s response to 9/11. From 2005 to 2017, Browne was the vice president and airport manager at Washington Dulles International Airport, where he managed a staff of 530 employees, serving over 23 million passengers a year. He was responsible for an aviation revenue stream of over $400 million and the revenues generated on the Dulles Toll Road that were used to construct the Metro Rail Line.
Browne is currently a director on the boards of the Space Foundation and Aero Club of Washington. He has a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and a Master of Science in aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. He has held an active FAA private pilot license since 1978.