Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

3. Traditional partnerships and the new lenders: museums v industry sector

The co-authors of this article come from the art history field and shared the initial expectation that a major international exhibition was simply about persuading museums to lend seminal objects from their gallery displays or their extensive reserve collections. Whilst museums were certainly an important part of this project, the really ground-breaking element was persuading commercial and government space bodies – normally with no experience of lending – to engage with and endorse loan requests. Furthermore, in some cases we were to discover that even though key objects were located in these organisations it did not mean that they actually held ownership of them.

3.1. The enterprises

The key partners in the space sector were RKK Energia; the Lavochkin Research and Production Association (responsible for non-manned flight spacecraft and probes); the Gagarin Research and Cosmonaut Training Centre (known as Star City); NPO Energomash (rocket engine design and building enterprise); and the aforementioned NPP Zvezda. With the exception of the latter, the above are managed by Roscosmos.

Our loan negotiations with Roscosmos were impeded by the fact that the agency was itself the subject of a lengthy and complex restructuring process, lasting three years during the period of our exhibition preparation (Sputnik International, 2015). The space industry was also under intense national scrutiny due to several failed rocket launches[11] and this, combined with the restructuring process, meant that we often befriended a range of officials who were then transferred to ‘other duties’[12].

Furthermore, the relationship between the different enterprises and Roscosmos is not straightforward due to a complex corporate structure. In some cases, companies (RKK Energia being the obvious example) are still infused with the fiercely independent mind-set of key figures such as Sergei Korolev.

In this project, our curators needed not only to know the history of the space programme, but have a working knowledge of the legal framework of the Russian government as well Russian corporate law.

During the Soviet period, the structure of the space industry sector (1946–1992)[13] was bewilderingly complicated, as hundreds of its plants and design institutes reported to different ministries, including the Ministry of Defence. The Academy of Sciences served as the official public-facing body, credited as the creative force behind the early successes of space technology. It was permitted to keep the designers, engineers and their work completely classified[14]. Roscosmos, founded in 1992, inherited the complicated structure of the Soviet-era administration. As we discovered, the tangled issue of ownership and the lack of recognition for many important objects was part of the Soviet legacy.

According to information from RKK Energia designers[15], after the manufacture of space equipment was complete, and immediately following its launch, its status would change to that of disused or decommissioned equipment. According to official procedures, retrieved landing spacecraft – the descent module – should be destined for recycling. In practice, the descent modules were retained by the design bureau, now RKK Energia. The historic ones are displayed at the enterprise exhibition hall located at its restricted access premises in Korolev town near Moscow. The aforementioned engineering model of Sputnik 1 and the most iconic of all descent modules, Vostok 1, can be viewed there by the few visitors who secure entry clearance and pass security checks (current delay is seventy days for foreign nationals and by no means automatically granted). Until recently their ownership was unresolved and they lived in a strange limbo: as disused gear they were decommissioned and as display objects they were not formerly acquired. Some were even lost, including cosmonaut Gherman Titov’s Vostok 2. His spacecraft was used in landing simulation tests for the next generation of spacecraft, in the course of which it was dropped and destroyed (Siddiqi, 2000, p 412, and Chertok, 1999).

As we saw in the case of the LK Lunar Lander, the Museum’s request to borrow items, backed up by official letters from Roscosmos, encouraged RKK Energia to formally acknowledge the ownership of these objects. The high international profile of Cosmonauts brought this to the government’s attention. The Ministry of Culture (MoC) was asked to develop procedures that would help to make the enterprise-owned artefacts part of Russia’s national heritage in future.

3.1.1. Saving the spacesuit

The fate of a precious artefact – Gagarin’s spacesuit and helmet with iconic ‘CCCP’ sign, for example – demonstrate that the preservation of key historic objects was often a matter of chance.

NPP Zvezda, a formerly classified military plant, is a joint stock company. This privately owned enterprise is managed by its Director General and Chief Designer Sergei Pozdniakov, appointed by a board of shareholders. NPP Zvezda has a company museum, located at the plant’s premises in Tomolino settlement, Moscow district, with an impressive collection of original life-support equipment. Their newly refurbished exhibition space presents the unique story of life-support technology. It starts from the world’s first spacesuit, SK-1, to cosmonaut’s (and 2011 astronaut’s) ‘professional uniform’ Sokol SV-2, and includes a 1960s prototype of the first man-manoeuvring unit and test-flown spacesuit for the cancelled Soviet space shuttle programme Buran. This impressive ‘fashion gallery’ of life-support technology is run by retiree volunteers and is accessible upon request and subject to security checks. The Museum’s most precious exhibit is Gagarin’s flown spacesuit. It is kept in a Perspex capsule-vitrine and never leaves the premises of the Museum, located in a refurbished air-raid shelter deep underground beneath the administrative building of the enterprise.

Figure 10

Colour photograph of a display of early soviet moon exploration space suits

View of NPP Zvezda museum with extra vehicular activity spacesuits display

There are a number of Gagarin SK-1 spacesuits, held by various museums in Russia and abroad, including one on loan to the Smithsonian. Those in Russia tend to have almost apocryphal stories associated with them. One of his ground training SK-1s was given to the Lyubertsy Technical College by the first man in space himself. However, the NPP Zvezda’s spacesuit is the very one worn by Gagarin in space. Upon the first cosmonaut’s return, it was subjected to a number of tests, designed to improve the equipment for future flights. After the NPP Zvezda team finished running tests on the spacesuit a few years later, it could have been discarded as disused gear. And officially it still is. The list of such precious objects in NPP Zvezda’s care will delight any collection curator. For examples, Tereshkova’s cooling garment with original embroidery featuring a seagull (her inflight call name); Leonov’s EVA spacesuit and life-support rucksack; a stratospheric flight dog spacesuit and ejector seat, among others. All of them iconic, and all near-misses in terms of extinction. 

Figure 11

Colour photograph of Yuri Gagarins space suit on display in a glass cae

Yuri Gagarin’s spacesuit SK1 on display at NPP Zvezda

Figure 12

Colour photograph of the soviet SK1 ground training space suit on display at the memorial museum of space exploration

SK1 ground training spacesuit on display at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Thus, survival of historic space technology was largely due to the initiative of individual enterprises, rather than state intervention or deliberate collections strategy. Cautious about state initiatives regarding the status of objects, the enterprises prefer to keep the equipment off official ledgers and within the restricted access territory of their own plants. It is clear that some potential lenders feared that agreement to our loan requests would raise their profile and the risk of their being ‘nationalised’. To secure the loans not only did we have to convince these enterprises of the benefits associated with the international exhibition of their equipment, but also to offer unequivocal guarantees of the safety of these objects while in transit and on display.

3.2. The cultural sector

The majority of our loans have been borrowed from Russia’s museum sector, itself subject to strict state-imposed regulations for international lending. Apart from the aforementioned MMC and Kaluga museums, important loans came from the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Polytechnic Museum, the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, and the Shchusev Museum of Architecture, as well as state libraries, archives and private collections.

We should also note that while the space industry was a hesitant lender, the museums were instantly generous. For example, in December 2012 we visited the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, to explore the possibility of borrowing a limited number of space-related paintings. After a brief meeting with the Director we were then taken to a (then unused) gallery where the curators had hung their entire collection of space-related paintings, taking most of them out of storage especially for our visit. We were stunned and could have mounted an exhibition from these artworks alone. Many of the canvases were vast. After remorseless space industry discussions, it was an unexpected pleasure to be able to make editorial choices about the paintings we wanted.

Figure 13

Colour photograph of Doug Millard curator at the Science Museum examining sculptures at the GTG sculpture stores

Cosmonauts Senior Curator Doug Millard examines sculpture of Yuri Gagarin at the twentieth-century sculpture stores of the State Tretyakov Gallery, September 2012


3.2.1. Recent history of international lending 

The mechanism for arranging loans of such scale and importance was the subject of detailed examination by the Russian MoC. Since the country opened its museum stores over twenty years ago for international exhibition loans, cultural institutions in the West established a number of ways of working with their new partners. Among these are:

•    staging large state-supported projects
•    working through charitable foundations
•    forming long-term partnerships
•    participating in bilateral years of cultural cooperation (YoC).

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered a keen international interest in Russian art, culture and technology. After the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991, a number of grand exhibitions surveys of Russian art were staged in Europe and the US. In the past decade, leading world museums have staged large-scale exhibitions such as Russia! (Guggenheim, New York, 2006), From Russia (Royal Academy of Art, London, 2008), and Sainte Russie (Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2010). These have been powerful tools in creating an image of Russia, both historic and contemporary.

Furthermore, museum ties between Russia and Britain have a long history, from Catherine the Great’s acquisition of Lord Walpole’s art collection in 1779 to fast tracking Immunity from Seizure regulation to enable the timely opening of From Russia, in 2008. In December 2014, the British Museum agreed to lend to the Hermitage Museum one of its most treasured exhibits, one of the Phidias’s Parthenon sculptures, the so called Elgin marbles, to celebrate the Museum’s 250th Anniversary. It was a controversial loan from the British Museum, but a major symbol of Anglo-Russian collaboration for the Hermitage.

Figure 14

Colour photograph of the Elgin marble statue of the torso of a naked man

One of the Elgin marbles on display at the Greek Antiquity rooms of the State Hermitage, December 2014

Reciprocal loans allowed the British public to marvel at the treasures from the Hermitage, through an extensive programme of exhibitions, supported by The Friends of Hermitage – a charitable foundation dedicated to working for the State Hermitage outside Russia. The foundation supports dozens of events and exhibitions every year, making the Hermitage collections accessible to the British public and facilitating access for Hermitage curators to the treasures and expertise of the museum sector in the UK. In 2013 the Hermitage supported Houghton revisited, which for the first time in 250 years brought the treasures of Sir Robert Walpole back to the house they were originally designed for (Bouis, 2013).

Other significant collaborations include that between the V&A and the Moscow Kremlin Museums. Over the past ten years, the Moscow Kremlin Museums and the V&A have shown a number of exhibitions based on material from each other’s collections, such as Two Centuries of British Fashion in Moscow, and Magnificence of the Tsars in London (Amelekhina, Levykin, 2008).

Although the aforementioned loans were not directly connected with space material, they created a context for unique cultural material leaving the country of origin for temporary display, and returning. This proved instrumental in the Science Museum’s negotiations. While the obvious point we made to those organisations was that precious objects had been safely lent before, the specific content of some art exhibitions also proved to be useful precedents too. Some lenders were, for example, concerned about the fragility of the spacesuits but had to accept that if Russia was prepared to lend the immensely precious and fragile coronation robes of the Czar then conservation and travel risks were not insurmountable.

Figure 15

Colour photograph of a finely embroidered dress suit made for the coronation of Peter 2 of Russia

Coronation suit of Peter II, 1727, one of precious textile loans from the Kremlin Museums to the V&A for the Magnificence of the Tsars exhibition


3.2.2.  Years of Culture 

The last of the listed established ways of collaboration with the Russian museum sector was participating in bilateral years of cultural cooperation. Such large-scale programmes based on agreements between two governments are staged regularly to bring the people of two partnering states closer, to help business and to foster cultural relationships. Such bilateral years operate within a state controlled framework and the choice of the partnering country tends to reflect Russia’s current political and economic priorities. In recent years, the deterioration of Russia’s international relationship with the West has had an impact on reciprocal cultural exchange programmes. In 2013, the bilateral year with the Netherlands was overshadowed by the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise scandal. In 2014, the Russia-UK Year of Culture went ahead despite the withdrawal of official support following events in Ukraine. The 2015 Poland-Russia Year of Culture was called off by the Polish side (Radio Poland, 24 July 2014) and replaced by Days of Culture with Argentina, marking the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Still, reciprocal cultural years and single loans of exceptional artworks and historical objects help to foster and maintain international relationships even during days of political and economic turbulence.

Figure 16

Colour photograph of the UK & Russia year of culture press conference showing a discussion panel and large projection

Announcement of the UK-Russia Year of Culture took place at the Science Museum on 23 November 2014, with Ambassador Shvydkoy, Head of British Council Russia Paul de Quincy and Director of the Science Museum Group Ian Blatchford listening to the opening speech of the festival’s coordinator Leigh Gibson, British Council

The Cosmonauts project fell into the first category of established types of exhibitions (large state supported project) and benefited from the framework of the UK-Russia YoC in 2013–14 (particulars are discussed in the following section). As shown in this section, perusing two borrowing paths in parallel – the cultural and the industry sector ones – presented two sets of issues the Museum had to address and handle; both would require government support for the project. While the first steps towards gaining official support for the exhibition and building relationships were made at the earliest stage of the process in 2012, politics played a key role in Cosmonauts right up to the evening of the opening ceremony.


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/004