Go back to article: Cosmonauts: Birth of an Exhibition

A major exhibition

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age would be one of the first of a new series of major temporary exhibitions developed by and staged at the Science Museum. Specifically, the exhibition would set out to remind those aware and to inform those that were not of the early years of space exploration when the Soviet Union dominated the headlines (from c.1957 and the USSR’s launching of the first Sputnik satellite to 1966 and its first soft landing on the Moon of the remotely controlled spacecraft, Luna 9). This was a time when the United States appeared to be struggling with its own space programme; a period all but eclipsed for some by the magnitude of the Apollo Moon landing missions that followed at the end of the 1960s. Apollo dazzled and dominated the television and the press, a supreme technological and organisational achievement, supported by an equally effective campaign of promotion and publicity by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA).  The Moon landings etched a powerful public memory of space exploration highlighting American achievement and almost excising the Soviet successes that had preceded it.

The exhibition would therefore ‘be revelatory: artefacts and images from the Russian space programme, for so long eclipsed by the American, will be displayed in the United Kingdom for the very first time; the stories of the people and personalities behind the space missions, so long hidden from the world, will be told’.[2] Its proposal emphasised the authenticity of the objects to be displayed: ‘Headlining will be a remarkable high-impact collection of real space hardware including flown capsules, rocket engines, flight spare satellites, probes and landers.’ Significant as these artefacts would be the exhibition would not be solely ‘a simple parade and revelation of technologies and technocratic achievement’. The exhibition would include also ‘vivid threads and perspectives from the visual and decorative arts that help place Russian space activity in a wider cultural context of the nation’.[3]

This addressed further but focused more accurately on an implicit, existing Science Museum objective of situating science and technology in a broader and more relevant social setting; one that would relate to potential Museum audiences, groups that traditionally had felt remote and disconnected from scientific and technical subjects. However, it reflected also a growing corpus of Soviet and Russian space history scholarship which was moving the focus on from the received accounts that emphasised the technological and the political – usually as inevitable outcomes of post-Second World War confrontation between east and west, and towards studies of what had been a far deeper and more sophisticated relationship of the Russian peoples with the cosmos. Similarly, concerns had been added over the traditional displaying of space artefacts in museums; Durrans, for example, argued ‘that both public and scholarly understanding of space is poorly served by technological bias…social context needs to be brought into the picture’ (Durrans, 2005). In respect to the locale of the museum he added specifically that it ‘need note only that space serves as a medium for expressing a range of social, corporate and personal interests, and that this happens both despite and because of space science, and always in close association with it’.[4] He was, in effect, reminding us that the spectacle and technological blaze of space exploration was rooted in very terrestrial activities and priorities within a broad community of social actors.

Collins maintained attention on the role of war in the eventual development of space technologies, suggesting such artefacts are, ‘for the most part, products of a particular milieu – the Second World War, the Cold War and the emergence of state-sponsored big science and technology products’, but highlighted also moves in the scholarship away from the geopolitical and towards more considerations of the role of the local to ‘shift the emphasis of the [space] programme history away from high-level politics and toward the multi-faceted terrain of ‘ground-level’ engineers and managers’ (Collins, 2005, p 3). This trend was illustrated well in the post-Soviet studies of the nation’s space designers and engineers – often auto/biographical – that drew aside the veil of state propaganda and myth to reveal previously secret details of how they worked within the constraints of state practice and priority.[5]

More significantly for the Cosmonauts exhibition and its perspectives and priorities, Siddiqi, Maurer and others had been looking in far greater detail at the cultural roots and manifestations of Russia’s interest in space, showing how it extended back through the twentieth century, well into the nineteenth, involving many thousands of citizens ‘from the ground up’; their interest and activities part of a distinctive ‘bridging [of] imagination and engineering [that was] mutable, intertwined and concurrent’ (Siddiqi, 2010).[6] Far from being entirely state-driven and inevitable, Russia’s exploration of space rested also on bedrock of social and civil involvement that long-pre-dated Sputnik.

All of this new scholarship would both inform the intellectual thinking of the Cosmonauts exhibition’s content and narrative structure but also help validate the Museum’s broader aspirations ’to make sense of the science that shapes our lives’;[7] of relating it more closely to visitors unfamiliar with or intimidated by the seeming remoteness of the subject.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160508/001