Monday, 16 November 2015

RESEARCHING ROCKETS: MS. SMALL GOES TO WASHINGTON


RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: LINDSAY SMALL

Recently I embarked on a research trip to Washington DC where I got to think deeply about the cultural narrative of space flight as it's presented in museums – and look at a tonne of really cool space stuff.

Like a kid in a candy store -- or a Lindsay in a space museum 

My thesis looks at the concept of the moon and lower earth orbit as heritage sites for future space tourists. The application of current cultural heritage and protection policy to material culture beyond Earth presents fascinating questions about ownership and colonization. So even though a full-blown space museum (in outer space) may seem like a far off fantasy, or even an impossibility, looking at this type of heritage discourse can illuminate the tensions in current museological practice.

My starting place is to examine how the material culture of flight is presented in two national museums. What are the stories being told? How are these artifacts displayed? So my first stop was a research trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Fly me to the moon...

Although I had been to this museum many times before, I had never been in the capacity of 'researcher'. Air and Space is a massive institution and I definitely felt overwhelmed at first. Luckily my supervisor, Dr. Krmpotich, gave me some excellent advice before I embarked on this journey. She suggested I get a floor plan of the museum and decide exactly what I was going to look at and why. I was to be strategic about my visit and have a grounded rationale of what to include and exclude. I made the decision that I would examine all the exhibits which deal with human flight and the material culture which exists because of this. This was still a massive undertaking, but narrowed my focus slightly. I also had to be careful not to place my own assumptions on this museum and try my best to look at each exhibit with fresh eyes (while still acknowledging my own positionality).

There were some truly surprising findings. For example I was interested to see that the difficult history of the V2 rocket was acknowledged in the "Space Race" exhibit. The V2 was an implement of war created in a factory in Peenemünde Germany. This factory subsisted on labour from concentration camps. After the war, German scientist Werner Von Braun came to the United States and the V2 was used for the American space program. There is a subversion of traditional narrative in the acknowledgment of the highly problematic birth place of the modern rocket.

My second stop was to the Udvar Hazy Centre in Chantilly, Virginia. It is a secondary site for the Air and Space Museum housed on the National Mall. I had never been to this museum before and wasn't sure what to expect. The building is referred to as "America's Hanger" and it did not disappoint. There were all sorts of airplanes from all over the world in this one building. I'm talking everything from a Concorde to a Tom Cat and anything you can imagine in between.

All the planes!

The "Space Hanger" is the permanent home of the shuttle Discovery. It looms large and impressive as you walk through the doors. Once I got over being in the same room as a space shuttle (is this what regular people feel like when they meet their favourite celebrity?) I took a careful look around the entire room at each artifact. There were so many milestones of space flight and right along side them were military missiles. As stated above, missiles with the intention to kill are inextricable from space exploration. At the end of the day a rocket is a rocket. However, being confronted with all of these artifacts in one room certainly brought this home in a profound and influential way.

Oh hey there space shuttle

As a side note, one of the artifacts I often write about is Alouette 1, the first Canadian satellite. It is an interesting example of Canadian material culture in outer space and provides a context for the type of artifacts one could see in lower earth orbit as a space tourist. Well...they had a replica so I got to fangirl out over that bad boy.

Gentille Alouette

I concluded this trip with way more questions than answers. Some things I thought I knew going in were challenged, subverted or changed and other new ideas and questions formed. The research is far from over but this experience gave me a grounded place to start. Now I'm off to the Ottawa Aviation and Space Museum next week!

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