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


This paper presents a case study of the display of the Mercury space capsule Freedom 7 at the Science Museum, in London, in 1965–66. The paper has two overarching objectives: firstly, it will reflect on the way displays of science and technology were delivered in the Science Museum in the 1960s. Based on the example of this temporary exhibition, the paper will suggest that display strategies commonly thought of as having originated in the 1980s can in fact be traced back some decades earlier. Indeed, analysis of documents suggests that some of these ideas were around in the 1950s: for example the use of a few and ‘ruthlessly selected’ (Nahum, 2010, p 189) exhibits instead of whole collections, or the idea that scientific and technical artefacts have an aesthetic value meriting forms of displays similar to those found in sculpture galleries and art museums.

The paper will suggest that temporary exhibitions prove particularly helpful for questioning received assumptions about the development of museum display techniques and policies. Permanent galleries, which often remain unchanged for at least two or three decades, are not flexible enough to serve as indexes of changes in museum practices in relation to changes in the wider cultural context (MacDonald, 1996). By contrast, temporary exhibitions enable us to acquire a detailed historical understanding of the development of museum practices on an almost yearly basis (Morris, 2010b).

As a second objective, this paper is intended as a modest contribution to the literature arguing for the significance of visual artefacts (such as photographs) as sources for historiography (Jordanova, 2012). The departure point for this article is itself a photograph depicting the Freedom 7 special exhibition, which was taken for the explicit purpose of documenting the physical form of the exhibition (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of the Display of Space Conquest exhibition at the Science Museum, London, 1965

The Space Conquest exhibition at the Science Museum, London, 1965

This paper shows that a close reading of such visual records, regarding the choice of exhibits and the architecture of the display, leads to new conclusions about the historical significance of the display, and adds to any understanding of museum practices gained from textual sources alone. Photographs allow us, as distant observers, to engage with material aspects of a display that often embody unarticulated museological skills and understandings. These skills and understandings are often tacit and remain unacknowledged by museum professionals. They are thus invisible in the written records produced by the historical actors who set up exhibitions.

Visual records analysed in conjunction with written ones also enable us to get a more detailed understanding of the conceptions museum curators held of visitors, what they thought visitors’ expectations were, and how they thought these expectations should be taken into account when constructing the display (Schmid, 2006). The present paper will suggest that such conception, in the case of the Science Museum in the mid-1960s, revolved around notions of entertainment and self-improvement.

This paper is intended to engage with the display as a material artefact, as a constructed thing, in a way that allows us to retrieve as much as possible of the agency of those who produced but also consumed it (Alder, 2007). It therefore contributes to the literature reflecting on the history of the material construction of displays, which has already covered a lot of ground[1].

In particular, Ghislaine Lawrence (1996) has usefully drawn attention to ‘the spectacular’ as a meaningful category for understanding the history of those aspects of exhibition, mostly visual, whose ‘handling ... is rooted in practices which have become conventionalized, largely unacknowledged and often self-imposed by curators and designers’ (p 69). The specific contribution of the present paper is to offer, through the close study of an individual case, a more detailed understanding of the history of display practices at the Science Museum during the mid-1960s.

The period can be thought of as significant for the Science Museum, for it follows the start in May 1964 of the television series Horizon. We may thus expect that this development in the British mediascape led to some evolution in the Museum’s visual language. Indeed, as I discuss elsewhere (Gouyon, 2014), historical evidence shows that staff at the Science Museum perceived the development of BBC2, and of Horizon in particular, as elements they should take into account when thinking of what the Museum could offer. For instance, the annual report of the Science Museum for 1964 contains the following remark:

‘out-of-school background science programmes are increasing in number and quality especially with the introduction of B.B.C.2 and to an ever-increasing extent are sating the public appetite for science lectures. Why should a family party spend a considerable amount of time and money to travel to the Science Museum for a lecture when they have a weekly choice of several first class science programmes on their own hearth?’[2]

As the present paper suggests, such awareness of the concurrence represented by science television programmes will translate, on the one hand, into a foregrounding of the Museum’s capacity to offer visitors the possibility of experiencing the presence of historical artefacts, and on the other into some form of reassertion of the Museum’s expertise in producing historical knowledge of science and technology. This latter idea was not alien to Science Museum staff in the 1960s (Anthony, 2010). In 1955 already, Frank Sherwood Taylor (then Director of the Museum) forcefully asserted that ‘the object of the Museum may on this view be stated briefly as to exhibit the achievements, wonder, importance and history of science’[3].

In what follows, I will firstly give an account of the exhibition, based on textual records: the Science Museum’s archives contain detailed papers related to the display. Secondly, I will discuss photographic records of the exhibition and show that analysing them enables a more textured description of the display, which in turn brings a deeper understanding than could have been obtained from texts alone. Lastly, I will suggest an intellectual genealogy for the display strategy exemplified in the Freedom 7 special exhibition. It appears indeed that the layout of the 1965 exhibition can be related to some of the reflection conducted in the preceding decade on how scientific and technological knowledge should be put on display. This is evidenced by a note on the topic authored by Keeper of Astronomy Henry Calvert in 1950, and recently discovered in the Science Museum’s archives (Calvert, 1950). Overall, the present article will propose that there is a relationship between this temporary exhibition and the development of the Science Museum in the 1960s, especially with regard to its appropriation of space science, as manifested by a nascent collection of artefacts related to the topic.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140105/007