In 1980 the San Francisco Airport Commission entered into a collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to create a museum program at the San Francisco International Airport. After a successful first year, a department (now San Francisco Airport Museums) was established to create exhibitions that would humanize the Airport environment and create an ambience in the Airport that reflects the sophistication and cultural diversity of the City and County of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area.
Over the years, this program has grown from modest beginnings in North Terminal (now Terminal 3) to an extensive museum within the Airport. Today, the San Francisco Airport Museums features approximately twenty galleries throughout the Airport terminals displaying a rotating schedule of art, history, science, and cultural exhibitions, as well as the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, a permanent collection dedicated to the history of commercial aviation.
San Francisco Airport Museums is the first of its kind in the United States of America and is now a widely imitated model for museums operating in public arenas. In 1999, San Francisco Airport Museums became the first museum in an airport to receive accreditation from the American Association of Museums.
Unlike most public arts programs, this program is never static. Exhibitions change throughout the year in an effort to provide an educational and cultural experience for the nearly 30 million passengers who use the Airport annually. Over the years, the Airport's audience surveys reveal that the exhibitions program ranks high in the top five services that the Airport offers to passengers. The San Francisco Airport Museums has become an integral part of the San Francisco International Airport. Each exhibition is curated specifically for the Airport by a staff of museum professionals who are Airport employees. The exhibitions are an established Airport tradition that attracts visitors from throughout the world.