Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

5. Concluding thoughts: forewarned is forearmed

Figure 19

Colour photograph of the first woman in space cutting the ribbon at the opening of Cosmonauts exhibition in the presence of HE Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko Director of the Science Museum Group Mr Blatchford Chair of the SMG Dame Mary Archer Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Olga Golodets HE Ambassador Tim Barrow and the Group Chief Executive BP Bob Dudley

The first woman in space cutting the ribbon at the opening of Cosmonauts exhibition in the presence of (left to right) HE Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, Director of the Science Museum Group Mr Ian Blatchford, Chair of the SMG Dame Mary Archer, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Olga Golodets, HE Ambassador Tim Barrow and the Group Chief Executive, BP Bob Dudley

We have had ample cause to reflect on two central questions: the factors that drove this project to a successful conclusion and the wider issue of sustaining cultural engagement in turbulent times.

The first ‘success’ factor was the most fundamental of all: the Science Museum curatorial team knew what it was talking about. They conveyed expertise and passion to all the potential lenders and key potential government supporters. In the early meetings, especially those with the space enterprises, we would have been easily deflected had the team not been absolutely sure of their ground. The team knew which objects really mattered and why the substitutes that we were sometimes offered were lesser, tangential or ersatz. When undertaking a project as vexed as this, it was vital that we convinced potential partners, and especially those senior government figures who were taking some personal risk in backing us.

The second element was having deeply rooted existing relationships with key colleagues in the Russian museum and governmental world, and close support from the British Council too. On a project such as this there are two ‘translation problems’: one: understanding (literally) what someone has said in a meeting, and two: what they really mean. There were also key points where Russian colleagues gave us essential advice. For example, at certain points it was tempting – as in a classic negotiating scenario – to set an absolute deadline for a decision after which the project would be cancelled. However, shrewder heads advised that those who were hostile or reluctant lenders would relish us setting a trap for ourselves and would simply drag things out so that the deadline would be missed.

There were many periods, especially in 2014, when it was very difficult for us to know what was really going on in Moscow. The exhibition was eagerly discussed by officials in a range of government departments beyond the MoC, each with a view on every aspect of the project, and the restructuring of the space industry made the blizzard of conflicting messages and personalities even worse. But the lesson was always clear: no decision was invariably better than the wrong decision; and to stay calm and let the Russian government system work its course.

On the question of cultural engagement, we were heartened to see that the major report by the European Union Committee of the House of Lords, published in early 2015, stressed the importance of maintaining exchanges in the fields of culture, education and science (House of Lords, 2014–15, pp 7, 91–93)

Indeed, it became ever clearer – and apologies if this sounds a little grand – that the exhibition had become a key bridge in the relationship between Britain and Russia. Working on the project was also a vivid reminder too that when the press speak of what Russia thinks, the statement is meaningless. We encountered a great array of opinions and perspectives. We also formed key alliances and very much hope that the legacy of this project will be two-fold: Russian space material for the Science Museum galleries; and future exhibition partnerships with the like of Rosizo, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Polytechnic.

In the jargon of the business world, one might describe Cosmonauts as a fine example of high risk, but high reward.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/006