Go back to article: Cosmonauts: Birth of an Exhibition

Space displays at the Science Museum

The first major permanent gallery devoted to space exploration had not been opened until 1986 but followed a succession of smaller and temporary displays from 1957 onwards that had established the Museum as a centre for the public’s interest in space exploration.[9]

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of a model of an early satellite on display as part of an exhibition

Science Museum Special Exhibition, International Geophysical Year, 1957

The exhibits were populated in the main with small numbers of scale models of space launch vehicles and also, in the first permanent site for a space-related display on the third floor of the Museum, a selection of British rocket engines relating both to aircraft assisted-take-off and to missile development – technologies applicable to space exploration but in this case, not of space exploration (Millard, 2010). 

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of a V2 rocket on display as part of an exhibition

V2 engine and fin assembly, Science Museum third floor, 1964

Real spacecraft were difficult to acquire and display, with notable exceptions being the engineering models of the early British satellites Ariel 1 and 2 and then, in 1962, 1965 and 1976 respectively, the flown US space capsules Mercury Friendship 7, Mercury Freedom 7 and Apollo 10.

Friendship 7 – the spacecraft in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth – was displayed for just two and a half days but attracted 25,000 visitors. Astronaut Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 formed the centre piece for a larger temporary display that remained for over six months and was seen by almost 350,000 visitors (Gouyon, 2014). The Apollo 10 command module touched down in the Museum in January 1976 after a European tour in which it had suffered significant damage during its public displays.

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of the Apollo landing craft being winched into a warehouse at the Science Museum London

The Apollo 10 command module arriving at the Science Museum, January 1976

This loan from the then National Air Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, to be renewed every few years, became a centre piece first of the Museum’s interdisciplinary gallery Exploration (1977) and then, on the same ground floor site of the Museum, its first permanent gallery devoted entirely to space exploration (The Exploration of Space, 1986).

The Exploration of Space adopted a magazine-style format which both historicised objects and used them in support of technical explanation.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a section of the space exploration gallery at the Science Museum London

The Exploration of Space gallery, Science Museum, 1986

It was divided into named sections dealing with ‘History’, ‘How Rockets Work’, ‘What Rockets Do’, ‘Britain in Space’, ‘Europe in Space’, ‘Living in Space’, ‘Man in Space’, ‘How Satellites Work’ ‘Robot Explorers’ and ‘Remote Space Astronomy’, ‘Local Space Science’, ‘Satellite Communications’ and ‘Remote Sensing’. The ‘Man in Space’ section included the Apollo 10 command module as key exhibit set opposite a full-scale model of the Apollo 11 lunar module on a mock lunar surface and nearby to scale models of the Soviet Vostok and US Mercury spacecraft and launching rockets. The supporting texts and graphics carried a descriptive narrative of what the missions were and when they occurred.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a moon landing unit being winched into a warehouse at the Science Museum London

Apollo Lunar Module (ascent stage), replica arriving at the Science Museum, 1977

Apollo 10 was moved to the new Making the Modern World gallery in 2000, one of over two-and-a-half thousand of the Museum’s most historically significant objects gathered together in one large space. Here it now stood alone as a self-referential relic near to other unrelated artefacts (including the original EMI brain scanner, Flying Bedstead experimental aircraft and an early Cray supercomputer). It occupied a zone of the gallery dealing with post-war big sciences and technologies (Defiant Modernism). While elevating (literally) Apollo 10 onto its own historic pedestal, its minimal interpretation rendered it hidden to many visitors and especially those unfamiliar with the shape and appearance of a flown Apollo command module. Nevertheless, the spacecraft had long been one of the Museum’s most acknowledged objects, particularly during the 2000s when the Museum’s Press and Curatorial teams used the spacecraft regularly as either the subject of Apollo-related anniversary stories and gallery activities or as a focus for space-orientated news coverage in search of a suitable visual backdrop to anchor the news item and its presenter. It was Apollo 10’s authenticity and historicity (one of nine spacecraft that took astronauts to the Moon in the last century), its physicality and presence, that resonated with visitors during the curatorial talks and activities staged around the spacecraft. For many it was being in close proximity to the actual craft that had taken three astronauts around the Moon that justified their visit. For the fortieth anniversary of its 1969 mission the barriers surrounding the spacecraft and Perspex plate covering the hatchway were removed, allowing visitors under heavy supervision by Museum staff to get still closer and also to look inside at its consoles and controls. Supplementary information was provided for the visitors to consult including scale models of the Apollo Saturn rocket and spacecraft, printed drawings of the module’s main consoles and copies of contemporary magazines and newspapers from the 1960s.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a man and a boy looking inside the Apollo landing craft on display at the Science Museum London

Apollo 10 command module open day at the Science Museum, May 2009. On loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC

It was during the initial planning of this event in 2008 and the focusing on the historicity of an authentic space artefact that my thoughts first turned to bringing a real, flown Vostok spacecraft to the Museum in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the first human spaceflight carried out by Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1. The display would be equivalent to Apollo 10’s in Making the Modern World, addressing a perceived appetite of visitors to become intimate with an historic event by getting close to the ‘icon’. Proximity would be sufficient. On-gallery interpretation would be secondary. And yet as plans to bring a Vostok spacecraft to the Museum evolved so too did the scale and nature of the future display’s intellectual underpinning. The change reflected the impressions gleaned during my visit to Russian space locations in 2009 and the near coincidental scholarship that was now directing historians’ attention towards far broader and older cultural interpretations of Russia’s relationship and eventual exploration of the cosmos.[10] The two elements were mutually inclusive. My experiencing of Russian ways and institutions, of the land and its people, was every bit as important as rehearsals of the scholarly and the academic, in outlining a vision for the exhibition and what it was intended to achieve.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160508/003