Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

1. Introduction: the exhibition vision

Figure 1

Cover of the Cosmonauts exhibition catalogue depicting a soviet poster of a woman reaching to space with the moon and a space rocket visible in the sky

Cover of the associated publication Cosmonauts: birth of space age exhibition, Scala, 2014

In the summer of 1961, over half of a million visitors attended the Earl’s Court exhibition hall in London to marvel at 10,000 exhibits brought to the UK from the Soviet Union. The USSR Industrial Exhibition was a masterpiece of the Soviet propaganda machine, offering a glimpse into its lifestyle while promoting the communist way of life. The 87-metre span of the exhibition hall’s steel truss roof provided an impressive framework for the displays of the latest trends in science, culture and education (Cross, 2012, p 292). The ‘Hall of the Cosmos’, a darkened tall cylindrical display space in the very centre of the exhibition contained engineering models of Sputniks and planetary probes, a revolving globe and state-of-the-art audio-visual content (Clarkson, 2012, p 293). Outer space was at the heart of the 1961 exhibition and, coinciding with the triumphant visit of Yuri Gagarin, made a long-lasting impression on the British public (The Times, 1961).

Fifty years later the curators at the Science Museum sought to bring to London the iconic objects that had made this golden age of space exploration. The Cosmonauts exhibition endeavours to present the most significant collection of space artefacts ever to leave Russia: real, cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, pioneering rocket engines, spacesuits and life support systems. But as crucial as the obvious ‘star’ objects are, the exhibition also reflects on how Russia made science fiction into science fact and confounds expectations by starting with the creative and philosophical concepts of late nineteenth century Russia. Clearly, it tells the story of the Soviet heroes Sergei Korolev, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and Alexei Leonov, but they all stand on the shoulders of early innovators such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (Millard, 2014, p 22–23). Not that the exhibition lacks for astonishing loans too, such as the engineering model of the first satellite Sputnik 1 and the Vostok 6 descent module of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Indeed, this article also outlines some of the epic negotiations undertaken to secure a range of iconic loans.

One should also note that an exhibition covering such a wide time range must raise fascinating issues about Russian identity too. Even those of us involved in the project have often fallen into the lazy shorthand of referring to the ‘Soviet’ story. This is wrong. The space story really starts in the final years of Imperial Russia, flourishes in an era of revolution and the Bolshevik state, enjoys a ‘golden’ age in the Soviet period of Nikita Khrushchev and sustains excellence in the post-Communist era of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

For many years the public perception of space science has been known only through the considerable achievements of America’s NASA and the defining moment of the Apollo 11 Moon mission of 1969. And yet Soviet Russia (however defined) was the first space-faring nation. It launched the world’s first satellite (Sputnik) and four years later the first human into orbit (Yuri Gagarin). But when NASA’s Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon the earlier Soviet feats were all but forgotten. The secrecy under which Russia carried out its space programme – all part of its military-industrial complex – no doubt lies at the root of this, and it has been the Science Museum’s mission to bring this untold story to light, through an exhibition of unprecedented ambition.

The Museum’s desire to tell the unknown story through an unprecedented showcase of real historical technology, equipment and memorabilia proved to be one of the most complex and challenging projects within the museum sector. It involved negotiations with the military sector, the declassification of certain exhibits, the engagement of state authorities in both countries, and all at a time when the political and economic weather threatened to undermine the project on both ends in a country shaken by economic crisis, territorial disputes and under EU sanctions.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of a spherical soviet descent module

Vostok 6 descent module in the museum of RKK Energia

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/002