1961 Russian cosmonaut poster
Space for cooperation. Soviet poster celebrating the early space programme. Boris Staris, The Fairy Tale Became Truth, 1961. Published by The Young Guard (Molodaya Gvardia). Originals can be found in the collection of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

October 2015

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is a major new exhibition at London’s Science Museum showcasing the remarkable history of the Russian space programme.

It builds on the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, which was a great success despite its tense political context. Cultural relationships have a long history of helping to maintain ties of mutual appreciation between nations. Even at the height of the Cold War, Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space was universally celebrated around the world. Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age is therefore both a record and an example of the importance of soft power and cultural relations and the vital role they play in maintaining dialogue between countries and peoples at times of heightened political tensions.

We asked the British Council’s Alexandra Smirnova, curator of the exhibition, to describe how it came about and what it means.    

Cutting the darkness

It all started in 2011, with the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. Gagarin travelled to Britain in 1961 just three months after his Vostok-1 mission. The visit was prolonged when the excitement of the crowds overwhelmed official plans. Fifty years later, to mark the event, the British Council helped to bring a statue of Gagarin to London. The statue was a gift to the UK from the Russian Government. It stood on the Mall for a year and received thousands of visitors. Once again, the famous smile that ‘cut the darkness of the cold war’, beamed out with infectious enthusiasm. The statue later moved to a permanent residence at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This in turn led the curators of the London Science Museum, with support from the British Council, to pack their suitcases for a mission to Moscow.        

And so it was that the charred Vostok-6 spacecraft, that in June 1963 took Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman – into space, this May touched ground at the Science Museum after a week-long ferry journey across the Baltic and the North Seas. Vostok-6 was the first arrival for the blockbuster Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age exhibition. The exhibition brings together an unprecedented collection of space artefacts unknown to many, even in Russia.    

The Science Museum, led by its new director Ian Blatchford, had embarked on the ambitious venture to bring to the UK a whole selection of Russian and Soviet spacecraft, artefacts and effects for what would be the first in a new series of major exhibitions staged at the museum. Months raced by, packed with visits to closed and restricted institutions and enterprises around Moscow, including Energia: the head organization in the field of manned space systems and home to the Vostok-6 capsule, and Star City: a secretive training facility for cosmonauts lying deep in the Russian forest. 

Russia was intrigued by this interest and has been extremely generous in lending the UK some of the crown jewels of the Russian space programme. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 have spent much of their lives closed off to the public and closely supervised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the Russian Federal Space Agency was going through a fundamental restructuring, and had to set up new procedures for international loans. However, the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture agreement had been signed by both countries. The year was a great success, seeing over 340 events celebrating UK culture across Russia, reaching a total of one million people directly, as well as a successful Russian Cultural Programme in the UK. Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age was announced to follow it, and the Russian Ministry of Culture helped to sign off the loans.

The poetics of utmost human daring

As the 2014 Year of Culture got underway, political tensions between the countries grew over the crisis in Ukraine and disagreements over Syria

As the 2014 Year of Culture got underway, political tensions between the countries grew over the crisis in Ukraine and disagreements over Syria.  But the British Council and the Science Museum were determined not to let the political situation affect the continuation of cultural ties with Russia. In these difficult times our message has remained the same: Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age was always intended as a story of Russia and its people. And people to people ties are all the more important in times of political tension.  

However strange it may sound as a description of a show on descent modules and space suits, this is a poetic exhibition. The poetics of utmost human daring are not only present in the fascinating stories of the Soviet missions, but also in the naivety of a letter written by a little girl to Sputnik (1958), in a simple drinking cup with the scratched name Korolev, which the Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme brought from the Gulag in 1940, in the intensity of Soviet posters and artistic fashions of Sputnik samovar and space-themed tea sets (1961). This was the story we wanted to tell, of the spiritual and cultural intertwined with – and embedded within – space technology. And a complex story too – of utopian ideals and human vulnerability, which was obscured by the victorious Soviet version of events. We are honoured that our Russian colleagues have trusted us to share it with the British public.

Dear Sputnik: Space is ours!

On 17 September 2015 the exhibition was officially opened by Valentina Tereshkova herself. With the Science Museum serving as the exhibition’s mission control centre, this project owes its existence to the efforts and dedication of hundreds in the UK and in Russia. As with a rocket launch, it’s the vital behind-the-scenes work of curators, conservators, managers, technicians, couriers and government officials that has brought this exhibition to fruition. 

The unifying power of human achievement represents the real spirit of cultural relations and a chance to build lasting bridges between nations

The space race finished with the truly international Soyuz-Apollo mission in 1975. Our hope is that the exhibition too will inspire further collaboration. We hope it will also act as a lens through which the lives and achievements of the Russian people can be better understood and appreciated in the UK, and that it will help to inspire the next generation of young people in the UK with the possibility of international cooperation in science and technology. We have little doubt it will. Indeed at the opening press-conference we saw state officials, journalists and sponsors overcome with enthusiasm when asking Valentina Tereshkova for an autograph or sharing their memories of that day in June 1963. The unifying power of human achievement represents the real spirit of cultural relations and a chance to build lasting bridges between nations.

Alexandra Smirnova, British Council and Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum 

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