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

The exhibition as it emerges from written records

The textual records held in the Science Museum’s archives that describe the Freedom 7 exhibition are extensive, and include some evocative detail. On 6 October 1965 the exhibition was opened to the public and one letter describes how initial plans for the opening ceremony included astronaut John Glenn, but fog eventually prevented Glenn’s flight from landing at Heathrow. The United States ambassador ‘very kindly performed the opening ceremony in his stead’ (Follett, 1965).

The capsule was the first in the Mercury programme to have carried a human passenger, Alan Shepard[4]. It was on loan for six months from the National Air Museum at the Smithsonian Institution and had been obtained following protracted negotiations, conducted in the hope that the Science Museum would receive the capsule for permanent exhibition.

Placed in the ‘Special Exhibition Gallery’ on the ground floor of the Museum, the spacecraft was accompanied by ‘exhibition material ... provided from the museum’s own Space Science and Technology section together with photographs specially provided by the American Embassy, ... which were mounted on four panels’[5]. This additional material was meant ‘to provide background information on the sub-orbital flight of Freedom 7’[6]. In addition a tape recording providing details of the significant features of the artefact was run ‘in the immediate neighbourhood of the Capsule’. The recording included an extract of the communication between the capsule and ground control, featuring Alan Shepard’s voice (Follett, 1965).

The exhibition was considered ‘highly successful’ (Follett, 1966). In total 347,643 visitors came to see the spacecraft, and it was necessary to make special arrangements so that people could see the capsule during the weekends, to satisfy an enthusiastic demand. But what did this eager audience actually experience?

Thanks to a report from an individual visitor we can get an idea of the exhibition space. This visitor was Robert Plenderleith, a curator at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, who was there to get a sense of the physicality of the display, since after the London show the spacecraft would be exhibited in Scotland for a further six months[7]. Plenderleith’s report is of particular interest as a historical source as we can assume that its author had an educated eye when it came to looking at museum displays. But because of the informed perspective of its author, this document cannot be mistaken as a means of accessing actual visitors’ experience. For that matter, as will appear, Plenderleith explicitly distances his perception of the display from that of ‘the visitor’. He writes:

‘To back up the central exhibit, the Science Museum prepared and added four wall panels of labelled photographs and posters by way of descriptive material and also a case showing models from their own collection of several types of American rockets.

‘In the display, the Capsule is surrounded by a railing and can only be closely approached from one side. Here a platform has been laid to raise the visitor to a position from which he can conveniently look down through a window and examine the illuminated interior. Immediately in front of the window a wooden step on the platform allows younger visitors to stand high enough to see within where an effigy of Commander Shepard, in full kit, is seen surrounded by a mass of instruments, controls and indicators.’ (Plenderleith, 1965)

This description adds a few elements to what had already been retrieved from the Science Museum’s summary of events, or the letters from the Museum’s Director, David Follett, to his opposite number in Washington, DC, Paul Johnston. For instance, we now know that the spacecraft was surrounded by a railing and could only be approached from one side, thus suggesting an effort on the Museum’s part to control the way visitors interacted with the capsule.

We also learn that this display repeated the key attraction of the earlier display of another Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, in 1962 at the Science Museum: the possibility of looking inside the capsule through its window (Gouyon, 2014). The citation of the Friendship 7 exhibition is not fortuitous. The wooden step installed on the platform in front of Freedom 7 to allow ‘younger visitors to stand high enough to see within’ was in fact added to the display after a mother complained that her son could not look inside the capsule, as he had been able to do on the occasion of the display of Friendship 7, three years earlier. This indicates, in turn, that audiences learn ways of interacting with artefacts through encountering them in museum displays. These interactions create expectations about how subsequent displays of similar artefacts should be designed. Museum displays can thus be said to create a familiarity with unfamiliar objects through the possibility they offer of repeated encounters.

Finally, Plenderleith’s report mentions ‘a case showing models from their own collection of several types of American rockets’ thus shedding some light on what is described only as ‘exhibition material ... provided from the museum’s own Space Science and Technology section’, in the summary of events. Later in his report, when discussing the possibility that these models could travel to Edinburgh with the capsule, Plenderleith notes that the suggestion ‘raised difficulties as the permanent collection had been temporarily weakened and models of rockets, etc., would require to be returned to the permanent display’ (Plenderleith, 1965). This last comment suggests that the Museum had a very embryonic collection, which would be consistent with the fact that the decision to form a ‘Space Science and Technology Section’ was taken in January of 1962 (Millard, 2010). The Freedom 7 exhibition was thus a means for the Museum to showcase its own collection.

Plenderleith’s report works backwards compared with what an incoming visitor’s itinerary in the exhibition space might have been. It begins with the panels installed at the back of the room and then makes its way towards the entrance of the exhibition space. This characterises the document as a display analysis rather than a report by a visitor. It also provides us with precious information as to what matters to the author, as a museum professional. The first things Plenderleith looks at are what ‘back[s] up the central exhibit’. The panels ‘of labelled photographs and posters’ and the ‘case showing models from their own [the Science Museum’s] collection of several types of American rockets’.

The emphasis placed in this report on the support material is confirmed in further correspondence between Plenderleith and the Science Museum. It can be interpreted as evidence that when a museum curator in the 1960s contemplated the notion of displaying such a major artefact as the Mercury capsule, the object was conceived of in terms of its power of attraction towards some back-up material. An important question to ponder for a curator was: how best could this power of attraction be exploited in order to present scientific and technical information?

Plenderleith’s report provides some notion of the display, the kind of sensory experience visitors were offered, and also of the kind of knowledge the exhibition was intended to impart. It also suggests that the support material was a key part of the display. But this written description remains somehow superficial. It does not allow, for instance, for a full understanding of the logic at play in the exhibition, and several questions are still unanswered. For instance, what was the architecture of the display? What was its scale? How were the different elements – capsule, showcase, panels – positioned in relation to one another? What kind of itinerary were visitors encouraged to follow? What claims to knowledge emerge from the display and are supported by it?

Museum workers, the constructors of displays, often think visually, as well as in three dimensions. It is no surprise that Plenderleith, the emissary of the Royal Scottish Museum, perhaps aware that his report could not allow the reader to form an adequate mental representation of the display or answer some of the questions above, also took a film of the exhibition. Back in Edinburgh, he sent a print of it to Walter Tuck, at the Science Museum, for not only was the film ‘a good record of the operation’, it was also ‘a good record of members of staff’ (Plenderleith, 1966)[8]. Similar expressions of trust in visual documentation, as a means of transmitting information about the physicality of the display, surface in the correspondence between the Science Museum and the National Air Museum, as photographs ‘specially taken to show how we have presented the Capsule and its illustrated material’ (Follett, 1965) were sent across the Atlantic to Washington, DC.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140105/008