Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

Abstract

Focusing on the experience of working with Russia’s cultural, industrial and political sectors, this paper investigates how the development of new contacts and partnerships has contributed not only to the loan of material of historic significance to the Science Museum’s exhibition, but more broadly changes perceptions about Russia and its space programme in the western world. Addressing the multiple challenges involved – legal, political and security, among others – it reveals the importance of many of the space objects themselves as well as demonstrating how the Science Museum has helped to maintain a dialogue with Russia even during the most testing times.

In September 2015 the Science Museum opened the most ambitious special exhibition it had ever undertaken: Cosmonauts: birth of the space age. Whilst the creation of a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition might be the normal expectation of a great art museum, the fact that a science museum should undertake such an endeavour is equally worthy of comment, and this article seeks to illustrate the exceptional curatorial, museological, logistical, legal and political hurdles that this project had to overcome. Indeed, they would astonish even the grandest and most experienced of the international art museums. Art museums are delighted when they can display the acclaimed works of Monet, but even the most valuable paintings cannot be said to be have been official state secrets in the way that so much Russian space technology has been.

The curatorial team kept its nerve because of a compelling sense that while the project delivery was high stress, the intellectual rewards would be considerable, and especially the opportunity to present a story of human endeavour in which cultural and scientific excellence are so intertwined. When the project team started out they could never have anticipated that they would be seeking to deliver an audacious exhibition set against a background of very serious strains in the UK-Russia relationship. In the end, they learned a great deal about Russia itself and the importance of sustaining cultural dialogue.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/001