Go back to article: ‘Something simple and striking, if not amusing’ – the Freedom 7 special exhibition at the Science Museum, 1965


This case study of the six-month exhibition of the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 in 1965–66 at the Science Museum in London shows how one display of scientific and technological knowledge was informed by reflections elaborated in the 1950s. Henry Calvert’s note emphasised the dynamic use of artefacts to set visitors in motion, and advocated an aesthetic based on the attractive display of a well-chosen artefact rather than on displaying vast numbers of objects. It also articulated a conception of visitors as entertainment-seekers, whilst expressing a belief in the individual drive for self-improvement. As Plenderleith’s report demonstrated, foremost amongst museum curators’ preoccupations in the 1960s was a concern for back-up material, as a means of putting to good use the drawing power of what could be called ‘charismatic’ artefacts. Further, the Freedom 7 special exhibition was identified as an early attempt at historicising space science and technology, and as the public initiation of the space science and technology section in the Museum’s permanent collection.

In this respect, the paper reinforces the argument for a re-evaluation of the status of temporary exhibitions as meaningful markers in understanding the history of museum practices (Morris, 2010b). Temporary exhibitions have been defined as topical events enabling the Museum to present science in the making. They should also be understood as moments in the history of the Science Museum meant to inaugurate the historicising of emerging fields in science and technology by this institution. The present case study is meant to invite comparison. Further research and more case studies of other exhibitions for the period would help confirm or invalidate the analysis presented here.

Finally, this paper has been an attempt at demonstrating the significance of visual sources for the historiography of museum practices. Photographic records of exhibitions allow us to get a sense of what visitors actually saw, and to deepen our understanding of what the spatial experience of visiting may have been. Photographs, albeit two-dimensional records, show displays as dynamic entities rather than static ones, in which objects have the power to set visitors in motion. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140105/011