Thursday, 26 February 2015

ONE GIANT LEAP: MANAGING CULTURAL HERITAGE IN OUTER SPACE

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: LINDSAY SMALL

The cultural landscape of space is such that it is ever evolving. Far from being the barren frontier which is often depicted in popular TV shows and movies, the immediate space around the Earth is filled with the remnants of a collective heritage of working satellites and now inoperable machinery. The moon and Mars also bare the marks of Earth's voyages beyond the planet. The question now becomes: what do we do with it?

Debris in lower orbit
Space museums. Yes you heard me correctly. Museums in outer space. Believe it or not, this is a research question which has consumed me for the better part of two years. While this may seem like an issue that is very far off in the future, studying what happens to artifacts in outer space can highlight issues currently faced by Earth bound museums. In a time where space tourism is not only an interest but soon to become a reality, it is natural to turn attention to the stuff which humans have left in orbit around the planet and on the surface of the moon. What exactly is to be done with all this stuff?

One of the most famous sites in space flight history is Tranquility Base. This is the site of the first lunar landing. The Apollo 11 astronauts left many artifacts on the moon (And decided to take some with them and keep them in their super secret stash). So who owns this site? Who is responsible for its maintenance once space tourism becomes popular? Could any governing body make a claim to this site without it looking like colonization? 

Too late lol
Declaring Tranquility Base as a heritage site cannot be done under the current UNESCO structure without explicitly tying the moon to the United States. How then to proceed? The common axiom of space flight is that it is taken up as an endeavour "for all mankind". (Yes, I am using that term consciously as you can currently purchase Mars One swag emblazoned with this super inclusive phrasing.) The rhetoric of space flight can be an intoxicating milieu of nationalism, colonialism and espousing a biological imperative to explore. In fact, explorers like Columbus and Magellan are often invoked in an almost God like manner. Yet, using the Tranquility Base example, the Apollo program was as much about science as it was about winning an ideological war between capitalism and communism. It is important to look critically at these endeavours as they closely resemble Earth based museological problems.

This all sounds terribly negative and I don't mean it to be. We are at the dawn of a new space age, one that could yield unprecedented information about the universe and our place in it. Moreover, there will be unparalleled access to space. As a space tourist wouldn't you want to see some of the shared heritage which is currently floating in lower Earth orbit and on the face of the moon? However, it is important to remember where we've come from. Our shiny new space museums should not resemble the colonial endeavours which birthed the modern museum. Perhaps then, we can start to talk about a collective space history which is for all of humanity.

Editor's Note: Lindsay Small is a first year MMst student with a masters degree in Science and Technology Studies from York University. Lindsay has never been to space, but did make a fool of herself in front of Buzz Aldrin which is probably as close as she's going to get. If you are a Museum Studies student engaged in research for a work, volunteer, or school project that you would like to share, please contact Robin Nelson.

Small will be presenting on this research in a presentation titled "Don't Panic: The Curator's Guide to the Galaxy" at the student conference. To see her presentation and more please remember to register for this year's conference on March 6th and 7th. The conference includes keynote addresses from Davida Aronovitch with Historica Canada and Andrea Field with the Bata Shoe Museum as well as great some student presentations (Like Small's), a reception on Friday evening, and a workshop with John Dalrymple (the details for the workshop should be on the website here. Email me to register as space is limited).

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