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Hampton History Museum opens exhibit on 'Hidden Figures' pioneers

Jonathan Black

The Katherine Johnson renaissance continues in Hampton Roads with a new exhibit at the Hampton History Museum opening Saturday.

"When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA's Human Computers" will examine the local history and characters of "Hidden Figures." The book was written by Margot Lee Shetterly, a Hampton native.

The story will begin in 1935 when five women began working at NASA Langley to process data from wind tunnel and flight tests. By the 1940's, the program had expanded to include African-American women as "computers."

It was then that now familiar names like Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson began working in Hampton.

Allen Hoilman, curator at the history museum, had known Johnson from his time working at the Virginia Air and Space Center. With the 100 anniversary of NASA Langley approaching, he knew a story from the base would need to be told.

How big of a story was solidified when Shetterly came to sign books at the museum in September. Hoilman expected about 100 people to show up. Six hundred did.

"We all said, wow, this is a big story. Let's push forward on this," Hoilman said. "We want to take advantage of that attention."

To add further fuel to the fire, the movie was No. 1 in the box office two weeks in a row and routinely has been listed as an Oscar contender by critics.

"Who would think this seemingly rather humble, but inspiring story, would turn into a Hollywood movie," Hoilman said. "It is a phenomena and we will be part of that."

The exhibit will be located in the museum's 20th century gallery. Part of the exhibit a graphic component telling the story of the computers at NASA Langley. The other part details the specific stories of the women, including Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson.

Hoilman said the museum is hoping to add a third element at a later time: a mini documentary, and also to collect artifacts from the women who worked at NASA.

"What I want people to come away from this exhibit is to realize this remarkable thing happened here," he said. "Hampton is building a case that it is one of the most geographic locales of the whole country for these turning points."

The exhibit will be at the Hampton History Museum for an indefinite amount of time but is available to travel for display at other museum, libraries, schools and other institutions.

Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.

"When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA's Human Computers"

When: Opens Saturday. The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Hampton History Museum, 120 Old Hampton Lane, Hampton.

Cost: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, active military and active NASA.

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