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

'This then should be our method'

There is a direct link between the Freedom 7 special exhibition and Henry Calvert, who had been given the task, in 1962, to start developing the Science Museum’s space science and technology section (Millard, 2010). Several people from various departments of the Museum actively participated in the making of the 1965 exhibition. But the person in charge of coordinating the Freedom 7 project was Donovan Chilton, then a Keeper of the Science Museum’s Department of Communication and Engineering. Chilton’s previous posting had been as a Deputy Keeper in Henry Calvert’s Department of Astronomy and Geophysics. No doubt the museological training he received at that time incorporated Calvert’s thinking on museum practices, whose influence, as we will see, can be recognised in this mid-1960 display. A summary of Calvert’s reflections appears in a note he authored in October 1950. A close reading of this document should thus give us access to the intellectual foundations of the display discussed above. 

In this note, as the title indicates, Calvert reflects on how displays of science and technology at the Science Museum should be assembled in order to convey ‘technical information’ to visitors. At the outset, he insists on the importance of meeting visitors’ expectations if one wants them to be interested at all. Most visitors to the Science Museum, he says, do not visit because they are primarily interested in science and technology but because it is a well-known museum in the vicinity of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and which ought to be visited. ‘This type of visitor’, Calvert continues, ‘wants something simple and striking, if not amusing.’ 

These visitors, Calvert states, do not want to spend time reading erudite labels, instead they want to be entertained. As evidence to support this statement, Calvert suggests that ‘the Children’s Gallery and the working exhibits in other galleries (e.g. Illumination & Locomotives) are what make an impression on them’. Hence, objects should ideally be three-dimensional, should be moving, and visitors should be able to start and stop them. 

But aesthetics should not be neglected either. Attractive objects, or objects displayed in an arresting way, will be more efficient at getting a point across to visitors than bland ones, because they will hold visitors' attention. Here Calvert alludes to the idea that pleasure - visual, or provoked by the idea of encountering an object associated with a remarkable episode in the history of science and technology - is an important dimension of what makes a display successful: 

‘The aesthetic appearance of the object and the aesthetics of presentation are also important. Visitors will stop to look at an object which is attractive in itself or which is attractively displayed. If objects are overcrowded the visitor walks past them without looking at any.’ (Calvert, 1950)

Further, objects can set visitors in motion, and move them to look at other exhibits, thus suggesting that a judiciously chosen object can serve to suggest itineraries and to draw attention to artefacts that may have been overlooked, had they been put on display on their own.

‘Once interest in an exhibit has been aroused there is a slight chance with certain types of visitor that they will read the label attached to that exhibit and may even go on to read about the other objects in the same group.’ (Calvert, 1950). Calvert then concluded his note in a rather programmatic manner:

‘This then should be our method: to attract people to an object by good showmanship, and when their interest is aroused to make sure that the instructive explanation is easily at hand to satisfy their curiosity.’ (Calvert, 1950)

The panels installed at the back of Freedom 7 played exactly that role, the physical organisation of the display materialising Calvert’s theoretical discourse. The same role of providing additional information was imparted to the films shown in the Children’s Gallery cinema in conjunction with the exhibition. Emerging from this note is a conception of visitors as entertainment-seekers. But it also indicates a belief in the notion of self-improvement, as it suggests that given the appropriate motivation, visitors will want to learn more about an object or a group of objects, after their attention has been attracted.

In light of the above discussion of Calvert’s note, the display of Freedom 7 can be interpreted as an opportunity seized by the Museum to advertise its own nascent collection of objects related to space conquest. As we saw, the models exhibited alongside the capsule were part of the first batch of models related to space obtained by the Museum. As will be remembered, Plenderleith reported that the Museum would not lend the models to Edinburgh afterwards, because ‘the permanent collection had been temporarily weakened’ and that they ‘would require to be returned to the permanent display’ (Plenderleith, 1965). In the first place, this confirms that there was not much left in the permanent collection after these models had been removed. Second, it suggests that it was considered important that visitors could find these models again in the permanent display after the special exhibition was over, the models exhibited together with Freedom 7 in their turn drawing visitors’ attention to the rest of the nascent collection.

In the light of this note of 1950, then, the Freedom 7 special exhibition is transformed from a topical temporary exhibition into an important event in the history of the Museum. Although a ‘Space Gallery’ was first mentioned in the 1969 Museum report (Millard, 2010), this 1965 display can be seen as already ratifying the notion of a space science and technology section in the permanent collection[16]. Further, it stands as evidence that although space science was still in a nascent stage, the Science Museum approached it from a historical perspective. This suggests that in the 1960s, in line with the injunction from Frank Sherwood Taylor in 1955, this institution conceived of its mission as that of producing and imparting a historical knowledge of science, doing so through the coordinated display of a series of artefacts representing the evolution of a given field, and drawing attention to such collections with an appropriately chosen ‘star object’.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140105/010