Story and photos by AAM Communications Coordinator, Steve Finkelman


Lech Lebiedowski’s involvement with historic airplanes goes back a long way.

“When I was little there was a
shipwreck at the coast of the Baltic Sea,” the Alberta Aviation
Museum Head Curator remembers of his childhood in his native Poland.
“Inside of it were three airplanes. The tails were still
sticking out and I remember as a tiny kid trying to take part of that
World War Two aircraft and just get it off that sunken ship.”

So, it’s little surprise that when
Lebiedowski arrived at the University of Alberta he would get his PhD
in the History of Science and Technology. It also follows that he
accepted the job as curator after being recruited by former U of A
professor Rod MacLeod, long-time president of both the museum and the
Edmonton Aviation Heritage Society.

And it’s Lebiedowski’s background and
artistic vision that have done more to shape today’s museum than any
other single factor.

Curator Lech Lebiedowski applies fake snow to the bush plane exhibit to achieve a realistic look.

“I really like difficult tasks.
And I love the design creativity part of it all. I can come up with a
design in my head and then to see it built it gives me enormous
pleasure.”

And the first few years were nothing if
not difficult.

“We were called Alberta Aviation
Museum but we had no procedures that were modern. What we had were 60
exhibits and a very good collection of historic aircraft. But they
were not related to any one mandate or theme. Essentially anything
that was donated to us would end up on the floor.”

To make matters worse, there was
virtually no money.

“If I needed something I had to
bring it from home.”

 

Lebiedowski interviewing the legendary Canadian pilot and airline builder, Max Ward.

But Lebiedowski saw the possibilities.
Working with two volunteers, Bill Graham and Dana Williams, he
started putting a new coat of blue paint on all the cabinets. Next
came updating and organizing the displays, followed by a major move
of all the airplanes to create a timeline and divide the military and
bush planes into separate areas. A change in management also helped,
putting an emphasis on turning the AAM into a professional,
recognized museum.

In 2017 Lebiedowski launched a
revitalization project. He designed a series of story islands,
defined by curbing that would guide visitors through the museum.

The islands allow every aircraft to be
a full-scale diorama telling a part of the story of Blatchford Field.
Each is filled with artifacts and replica tents, cabins, ground cover
and full scale cutouts of the people who crewed the aircraft or
played a role in Alberta’s aviation history. One of the pivotal
moments was the decision to create a background for the dioramas
using
giant photographic banners.
Lebiedowski did the
artwork himself using an old photo editing program.

“The minute we put the first one
behind the Viking it was ‘wow’. It was unbelievable how much that
added. When all these components came together it was amazing and
really really popped out.”

 

The completed Mosquito exhibit, telling the story of Second World War bomber crews in Europe.

Fast forward to 2019. Work has been
completed on most of the story islands. More recently,
a team of volunteers built a free-standing diorama
which
depicts a bombed-out German town as a backdrop for Mosquito exhibit.
Once again, the design was the product of Lebiedowski’s creative mind
and a lot of dedicated and talented volunteers. Lebiedowski is also
quick to credit the fundraising work of long-time museum member Terry
Champion, which has raised more than $30,000 to help with the new
exhibits. The money goes a long way.

“What is pocket change to most
museums will take us a long way because of our volunteers. We do
everything in house and with really minimum resources. And at the end
it looks pretty amazing.”

And now that Lebiedowski has full time
help from Assistant Curator Ryan Lee, the work is going more quickly.

“Ryan is the person who can work
with computer and design software. He can edit audio visual material.
He is the brains behind the software. He’s an enormous addition.”

Lee is an underwater archaeologist who
lived across from the museum growing up and was always fascinated by
airplanes.

“I worked in Turkey on Byzantine
and Bronze Age shipwrecks. Did a lot of travelling and got a lot of
training in 3d printing, computer modelling and photography.”

When he returned to Edmonton he
volunteered at the museum, first as a tour guide and then working in
the archives. He was hired by 418 Squadron Association to digitize
their collection and more recently joined our museum curatorial
staff. Lee has been key in sourcing exotic materials like the
snow for the bush plane exhibit.
He did the
construction design work for the V1 bomb that will be part of the
Mosquito display. He also helped Lebiedowski introduce new
interactive features on the floor. Walk by the Jenny and the OX5
engine sound comes to life. Approach the Cranwell and Wop May’s voice
comes out of an old radio.

“I just like the fact that we can
have an idea, decide to implement it and a week later it’s done,”
he says.

 

Assistant Curator Ryan Lee curling the hair on a wig for the Women in the Second World War exhibit.

“You come to work every day, every
week and something has changed. It’s really rewarding to see such a
tangible result of your work.

As for the future, the curatorial team
still has a lot on its plate.

“Most of the story islands are
done, Lebiedowski says. “Now the other ugly things pop out. The
floors and the entrance. So now we will be working on that. “

Lebiedowski also has his heart set on
building a children’s play area.

“When I started here the audience
was mainly ex-RCAF people, now we have many little guys. Mothers
come here with really small children and we have almost nothing to
offer to them.”

It’s an idea that will require a lot of
ingenuity and hard work, both by the curatorial department and the
museum’s dedicated volunteers.

“This is my dream to make it part of the (new Blatchford) community. I want it to be a meeting place. They will interact with history and they will learn about aviation. I hope this will be my legacy.”

 

Lee and Lebiedowski working in the field to document wreckage from a PWA 707 that crashed in Leduc in 1972.