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

Learning from a photograph

The photograph to which we turn now was part of this series sent to Paul Johnston in November 1965 which was intended to show what the display looked like. This particular photograph (See Figure 1) is a general view of the Freedom 7 special exhibition as seen from the entrance.

It shows a highly structured display, with clearly defined lines of sight, and an implied route through the exhibits. On entering the exhibition space, visitors first encounter the panel announcing the title of the exhibition and crediting the National Air Museum. Instead of commanding a halt on the threshold of the display, this panel acts as a pointer towards the centrepiece at the end of the room, suggesting an itinerary that passes beside the showcase presenting the models from the Museum’s own Space Science collection.

The case contains five models, each representing a stage in the progression of US space science and technology. Two are of space capsules: a Mercury spacecraft and a Gemini one (Figures 2 and 3)[9].

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of a model of the Mercury space capsule

Mercury capsule model 1

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of a model of the Gemini space capsule

Model of Gemini 4 space capsule

Three are of rockets: a V-2, a Mercury Atlas and a Saturn C-1[10]. Together, these five models tell a story of the US space programme from the immediate post-war period (with the appropriation of the German V-2 technology) to 1965 when the Gemini project was in full swing, and launch vehicles capable of propelling spacecraft such as the Mercury and the Gemini capsules had been developed. As the object numbers indicate, these five models were quite recent additions to the Museum collection. The rocket models were part of the first series of eight models of rocket boosters commissioned from the model-maker Shawcraft, in Uxbridge, and received at the Museum in March and December 1964[11]. The capsule models, which were gifts from the MacDonnell Corporation to the Museum, had reached the Museum only a few months before the opening of the exhibition[12].

This showcase display, considered in relation to the entire exhibition, can be seen as an early attempt by the Science Museum to position itself as able to historicise space science and technology. The Gemini model was labelled thus:

‘Here is presented the two-man capsule used by the U.S.A. as an interim vehicle designed to evaluate more complex manoeuvres in space following from the Mercury flights and leading on to the Apollo programme.’13

In 1965, NASA’s Mercury programme had already been replaced by the Gemini project. And this label tells a narrative of progress from Mercury through Gemini to Apollo, from Earth up to the Moon, in an ideal and smoothed-out trajectory with increased levels of complexity, and from which asperities and accidents are erased. Freedom 7 stands as the departure point of this trajectory, the first capsule in the Mercury programme to have lifted a human into space. The label for the model of the Gemini vehicle prepared the visitor to encounter Freedom 7 as a historical artefact. So even more than a topical one, this special exhibition was a historical display, presenting a ‘first’. Indeed, David Follett, in his letter thanking the Director of the National Air Museum, defined the capsule as ‘a unique object and one of great historical interest’ (Follett, 1966).

Displayed alongside the Freedom 7 capsule, the showcase exhibit supports the claim that the Science Museum is to be trusted to impart reliable historical knowledge of space science and technology. Having passed it, visitors would eventually reach the spacecraft itself, which could act like a magnet, drawing visitors forward. There, they would hear the tape recording, played in a loop, detailing the main features of the capsule and coming out of the loudspeaker pair standing on the floor, visually unobtrusive, on each side of the capsule. They would perhaps look at its illuminated interior, and marvel at the intricacy of instruments, controls and indicators. In any case, they would be physically dominated by the artefact, Freedom 7 standing erect on top of a trolley like a pedestal – modern technosculpture for the age of space exploration (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of a press viewing of the Freedom 7 space capsule, 1965

The Freedom 7 space capsule at press viewing, 1965

Having reached the focal point in the display, some visitors may then have walked beyond the capsule, and read the four magazine-style panels of labelled photographs and sketches backing the ‘“star” object’ (Tuck, 1965). Here they could obtain additional information on the US lunar programme, the Mercury project and the Freedom 7 flight, the whole enterprise being presented as ‘the continuing programme to further man’s search for useful information about outer space’[14]. This final part of the exhibition adopted an anthropocentric perspective, rather than a technocentric one. Labels provided visitors with information on astronauts’ training, and equipment. The top-left quarter of the third panel showed the photographic portrait of the six astronauts involved in the Mercury programme. The last panel was devoted to Alan Shepard’s experience during his flight. To place the emphasis on human agency made it easier for visitors to relate to this new field of knowledge.

Finally, as the easel standing on the right-hand side of the capsule reveals (Figure 5), for those visitors still willing to get more information, two film shows a day were arranged in the Children’s Gallery cinema, with the two NASA movies Astronaut Shepard Reports on Space and Freedom 7. Ironically, the film show for 14 October 1965 (the day when the photograph was taken) was cancelled, owing to the absence of an audience. Eventually the regular film shows were cancelled completely and the two films were only shown on demand[15] (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of the Display of Space Conquest exhibition at the Science Museum, London, 1965, showing the easel displayed next to the capsule

The Freedom 7 capsule on display. Film screenings are advertised on the easel to the right of the capsule.

From the examination of the photographic evidence documenting the Freedom 7 special exhibition emerges a vision of this display as a highly structured and dynamic one. Somehow, the capsule works in the general economy of the display like a celestial body of great mass setting surrounding bodies in movement. The exhibition space, as viewed from above, can be inscribed in the ellipse of an imaginary orbit revolving around the capsule, which occupies one of the focal points. The title panel and the showcase are positioned along the main axis.

The display is clearly guided by some strong theoretical principles regarding how science and technology should be put on show at the Science Museum. The astronomical metaphor is not completely gratuitous, since Henry Reginald Calvert, the Keeper of the Science Museum’s Department of Astronomy and Geophysics, can be recognised as the principal source of inspiration for the construction of the display. In order to understand the museographical reflection underlying this exhibition we have to turn to him, and a note he authored in 1950, detailing his approach to the ‘presentation of technical information in the Science Museum’ (Calvert, 1950).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140105/009