At ICOM UK’s annual conference we heard about the challenges and benefits of working internationally from the team behind the Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age”, and I had just enough time to see Cosmonauts in its final days in London.
Cosmonauts, in the words of the Science Museum, explores the “historical, cultural and spiritual context of Russian space travel, shaped especially by the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century”.
The interpretation, layout and the pace of the exhibition were impressive. Starting off in a room exploring the philosophical beginnings of the Soviet Union’s fascination with space, I was guided through a remarkable narrative which built in intensity through trial and error, triumphs and tragedies and finally the collaborative future of space travel.
The design took advantage of the space theme without being too “retro” or “kitsch” – angular, metallic panels and brightly coloured walls successfully combined fun, accessibility and the gravity (no pun intended) of some of the themes explored.
Also, the objects were allowed to shine: original artefacts from the Soviet Union, many of which had never left Russia or been shown to the public at all, let alone in another country – an amazing achievement.
My favourite was the original Vostok 6 capsule flown by the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. It was truly incredible to see something that had been to space and survived a return to earth – with a person inside!
While this was an exhibition of objects, it was first and foremost about people. Letters from aspiring cosmonauts, makeshift banners by Russians celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s mission, Valentina Tereshkova’s wedding photos and a poignant statue of those lost in the space-race provided a vital emotional dimension to the story.
The focus of the exhibition’s conclusion and the story behind the exhibition’s development both represented ideals about working together across national borders: showing that when wider political relationships are under pressure, science and culture can build friendships and bridges in ways other efforts cannot. This is one of the ideals of the International Training Programme too, and Cosmonauts showed how successful that ideal can be in practice!