Cosmonauts: Celebrating Russian Space Exploration

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Of all the exhibitions opened in the UK this year it is perhaps the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts display that will prove to be the most surprising for both British and Russian visitors alike. 

The history of the space race may seem familiar enough to many; some may even remember Yuri Gagarin’s famous visit to London in 1961, but few will be familiar with the complex story of Russia’s interest in space exploration. Fewer still will have seen first-hand the innovations and inventions that successfully reached and returned from outer space. Science Museum curators Natalia Sidlina and Doug Millard have the daunting task of bringing these spectacular space age art efacts to London and between them they will be responsible for presenting the history of Russian cosmonautics on an unprecedented scale.

‘This is the first Russian Space exhibition of this size ever in the UK and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it will be the first of its type anywhere outside Russia’, explains Doug Millard. ‘There has never been the sort of assemblage of real objects that we are putting together for this exhibition’. So how did such an ambitious project come about? According to Natalia Sidlina the idea of staging an in depth analysis of Russia’s contribution to our knowledge of space has interested the Science Museum for some time. ‘An exhibition such as this takes probably three years in the making and the UK-Russia Year of Culture had been signed off only in spring this year, so of course the work started long before the announcement. When I started working on this exhibition I discovered in the archives the very first concept, which was dated 1992. So the minute the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia started to open up, Doug realised that in our collection we didn’t have anything to represent the pioneering story of space exploration from Russia; we needed to have a temporary exhibition as a starting point for that. So really the project started over twenty years ago’.

Russia has a particularly rich history of engagement with the idea of exploring and understanding space, and this is something that the curators are keen to express. The exhibition will reach beyond the achievements of scientists and cosmonauts and look back to a time when the possibility of reaching into the unknown corners of the universe was an idea that intrigued scientists, artists and philosophers alike. ‘The central idea of the exhibition is to show that Russian space is as much about dreams, creativity and art as it is about rocket science, mathematics and physics’, explains Natalia. The exhibition is not just about scientific achievement but also about creating a sense of the climate that these advancements were born out of and likewise the buzz and excitement that permeated back into society. To articulate this message the show promises to include some unexpected additions alongside the real-life objects of space travel. ‘We will also have works on show by Russian avant-garde artists inspired by philosophical ideas of space flight, as well as propaganda art and posters and even works created by the cosmonauts themselves. The challenge for the curator to show a work of avant-garde alongside the engine of a rocket isn’t easy!’ And even today one doesn’t have to look far in Russia to uncover links to the space programme, something that Natalia was surprised to discover. ‘Whilst working on the exhibition I realised that in Russia there is practically no-one unrelated to Space. Everyone has an amazing story to tell, so in a way in this project we are not only discovering the  history of space exploration, we are also discovering the history of twentieth century Russia through the various people involved in making it all happen’.

The main draw for visitors will of course be the space relics themselves; these are major historical objects, direct participants in some of the most famous events of the twentieth century.  I asked Doug what we can expect to see. ‘Some of the most important objects will be coming from the Russian Space Industry and the Federal Space Agency. Hopefully there’ll be quite a few highlights and there is one which we are particularly fond of. It will be coming from the Polytechnic Museum and it goes under the rather glorious name of the ‘phantom mannequin’ or ‘phantom cosmonaut’. This is like an avatar or a facsimile of the human form that has actually been sent into space. It’s a very striking figure, it is painted gold and its face resembles that of Yuri Gagarin. For a museum space curator like myself that’s a really important object. Most items sent into space don’t come back but this one has done’. Natalia adds that the exhibition will be made up predominantly of loans from Russia, some of which are not currently available to the Russian public and have never travelled outside of the country. ‘It’s an object rich exhibition and standing very close to those true objects, such as a manned space craft, will impress anyone, from our youngest to oldest visitors. We even have a space suit worn by space-dogs Belka and Strelka, the first dogs to orbit the Earth and return safely’.

This exhibition offers a chance to learn about the particular history of Russian space exploration, so often overshadowed in the West by the achievements of America and the drama of the space race. For many this will be an unfamiliar story but it offers a fantastic opportunity to marvel at the achievements of science and engineering. The lure of travelling into space, of leaving the Earth and discovering what lies beyond our planet has intrigued humans for centuries and it continues to fascinate us; the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum looks certain to be one of the most interesting and informative shows of the year.


Science Museum, London

October 2014