18 February 2016

Behind the Scenes - 25 Years at the BM

Nothing lasts forever. Although this is anathema to anyone who works in a museum, it is a fact which we are all more than acutely aware of. The whole purpose of a museum is essentially to act as a repository of the past for the future. A “time capsule.” The aim of the museum as an institution is to preserve the material aspects of the past for future generations to see, study, understand, appreciate, and enjoy. But there is a popular misconception that museums are static, monolithic things. It’s a commonly held notion that museums are definitive and unchanging. The idea of things languishing forgotten in “dusty basements” is a cliché repeated ad nauseam in the Press, yet such hackneyed old adages often could not be further from the truth. Museums are as much “time machines” as they are “time capsules.” Museums are constantly changing. Re-categorising, rearranging, and redefining our understanding of the past. I was starkly put in mind of this fact, at a very personal level, when I walked into the Egypt and Nubia Gallery at the British Museum recently. 

Finding archaeology on our doorstep, 1997
This gallery was the first major ‘new’ exhibition space which I worked on at the BM back in 1991, and, as such, it has always had very special memories for me. Over the last year or so certain elements of the gallery have been completely altered, reflecting new finds, new research, and changes in interpretation – hence several of the displays which I had first worked on have now disappeared. I felt rather despondent when I came across some of the old information panels, which I distinctly recall installing as new, stacked up for disposal beside a rubbish skip in one of the back areas of the Museum. As I wandered (feeling slightly bereft) around the gallery itself, looking for the familiar displays I’d formerly worked on, seeing which had gone and which remained, I was suddenly struck by that very thought: Nothing lasts forever. And I suddenly found myself wondering why I’d never thought before to take any photos of those first ‘new’ museum displays which I’d worked on? ... I was then struck, perhaps even more profoundly, by the thought that it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had ample enough opportunity to do so – I’d had nearly 25 years in which to do so! … Time waits for no man, indeed.

 Working at Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 2008

It is 25 years this month, today on February 18th in fact, that I first set foot behind the scenes at the British Museum. I was still at school and I hadn’t even sat my first exam yet. We’d been told by our teachers that we would have to do ‘work experience’ in the summer term, and we’d each been given a short questionnaire to fill out, detailing our interests and career aims, if we had any. I was already very interested in history and I was particularly keen about archaeology as my main subject area of interest, hence I went to great pains to make this clear on my questionnaire before handing it in. A couple of weeks or so later we were each informed of our work experience placements for the summer term. I eagerly opened mine to see what the school’s Careers Officer had found for me – expecting / hoping for something in a local museum perhaps? … But something had clearly gone wrong.

Holding the famous 'Flood Tablet,'
The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2014
I’d been placed to spend two weeks with a car mechanic. I had no interest in cars whatsoever and was deeply baffled as to how my assiduous answers to the questionnaire had landed me this result. I went to speak to the Careers Advisor, only to be told that: “You need to be more realistic. Nobody ever really gets a proper job as an Archaeologist.” That distinctly discouraging statement, in effect, became the spur and motivation to the rest of my life.

From around the age of about nine years old I’d spent most of my weekends visiting the BM. I was absolutely fascinated by the vast range and the unfathomable age of the many artworks and artefacts from seemingly all parts of the globe which were collected in the galleries of the Museum. Room after room in this great labyrinth of the mind seemed to stretch on endlessly, packed with curiosities and marvels. In those days the British Library was still in residence at the BM in Bloomsbury, and the old illuminated manuscript galleries and the original King’s Library, filled with old oak display cases, used to mesmerise my mind for hours on end (see here) ... Wouldn’t it be marvellous to work in a place like this? Imagine spending every day immersed here? … In truth, I had no real idea of what such a job might actually entail – but it certainly seemed far more enticing than the prospect of greasy spark-plugs, oily carburettors, and worn out brake-pads. I wanted to find out. Who dares, wins. So I gave it a shot. I wrote to each department of the Museum and asked if I could do my work experience there, behind the scenes. 

 Working at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 2008

Holding the head of a Terracotta Soldier 
in Xian, 2007
To their credit, I received a reply from every department. I remember the excitement of opening each letter as they came in one-by-one. At first I was somewhat disappointed as several, very courteously, informed me they were either too busy or I was too young, yet encouragingly almost all said I should apply again in a few years time. But then I received the first which, unbelievably, offered me an opportunity. I only needed one, but in the end I had offers from several departments. Eventually I had to choose which golden opportunity was the one I should take. I decided I’d do my official 'work experience' in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, but, as I was eventually aiming to study archaeology at university, I also chose to volunteer in the Prehistoric and Romano-British Department in my school holidays too. Rather sadly I had to write back to a couple of departments to say thank you, but that there just wasn’t enough time in the school year to visit all of them! … Looking back, this seems unbelievable to me now – despite the fact that today the Museum has a vast programme for volunteers, who all do amazing work for the Museum, I sadly doubt we’d be able to look after a volunteer quite so young in quite the same way nowadays. 

 Working with the Terracotta Warriors in Xian in 2007

Behind the scenes, 2014
I had two wonderful stints behind the scenes for my work experience that year. I was introduced to a whole spectrum of different areas of museum work. I got to help out with day-to-day gallery maintenance, basic care of the collections, as well as helping out with object mounting and display work for new exhibitions, such as the then new Egypt and Nubia Gallery. I also got to chat to curators and conservators, and find out all about their personal research projects. I got to help out with answering public enquiries, and even some actual archaeology, in the form of post-excavation finds processing. But by far the most thrilling aspect of my first few weeks at the Museum was simply the very real privilege of going behind the scenes, seeing the stores and actually handling the objects myself. I learnt so much in such a short space of time, and it’s certainly no cliché to say that my life was never the same again. I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

 Working at the National Museum of Korea, 2010 (Chosun Ilbo)

 Working at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014 (Formosa News)

 Working at the Palace Museum, Beijing, 2007 (Xinhua)

I kept in contact with the friends and mentors I’d made at the Museum and a few years later, once I was enrolled as an undergraduate studying anthropology (with as much archaeology as I could add in) I returned to the BM as a regular volunteer, helping several days a week. Just before I completed my degree I was lucky enough to join the staff full-time, and since then I have moved through a number of different departments and roles in the Museum. In doing so, I have managed to gain a very broad and yet detailed knowledge of the Museum and its collections (see here). I’ve looked after many students and volunteers in that time, which, having begun as a volunteer myself, I’ve always found particularly rewarding – to see in the eyes of others the wonder and enjoyment which one can experience from that hands-on connection to the past which comes from working within a museum is priceless, a reward in itself. I’ve done many other interesting and unusual (as well as some distinctly daft) things during my time at the Museum. For instance, helping to get the latest, most recently excavated Romano-British find connected to gladiatorial combat in the UK into our then current major exhibition, Gladiators and Caesars (you can read more about that find here). I was also persuaded to dress up in full replica gladiatorial armour for the opening event of this same exhibition, at which I also met the actor, Mark Rylance (see here).

 "We who are about to die ..." - I'm the one with the red shield, 2000

Working in the Roman-Britain Gallery, c.1996-1997

Perhaps most fortunately of all though, largely due to my present role in the Museum, I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work in other museums overseas for extended periods. In this way, I have made friends and connections across the world, and benefited from that exchange of knowledge. Museums are unique – but essentially, for me, the most important thing about museums, whichever museum you go to, is that they are all institutions which are founded on that same selfless ethos which characterises all proper museum work and all true museum workers: nothing lasts forever. Hence we must do all we can to preserve as much as we can for future generations. Museums last longer than any of us. The knowledge and interpretation of the objects with which we work will never remain the same forever. Museums evolve and change with time, but what remains essential is the memory, the wonder, and the interest which they encapsulate for everyone. As a guiding ethos, this is something which I hope will last forever.

 Working at the National Museum of Singapore, 2015

Interview at La Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Switzerland, 2014 (Canal 9 Valais)


An Article I wrote for the Museums + Heritage Advisor, 2013


Celebrating another milestone - this is also my 100th post on 'Waymarks'

11 February 2016

Cosmonauts - Birth of the Space Age

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I was in Sixth Form, I had a poem published in the weekly College Newsletter. It was titled - Cosmonauts Can’t Fly

          Cosmonauts can’t fly,
          It was all a big Soviet lie.
          Their spacemen were a fake,
          Not one space rocket could they make.
          No Cosmonaut could fly,
          But they tricked every Western spy.
          Those photos of Space Station Mir were a fraud,
          It was just a model made out of cardboard,
          No Cosmonaut could fly,
          Whenever they tried they could only get 5 feet high.
          It’s now a fact that they can’t deny,
          Soviet Cosmonauts could not fly.

Whilst it was meant to poke a bit of fun at the fallen prestige of former USSR, with a knowing nod towards the conspiracy theories that claimed NASA’s Apollo Moon landings were faked, I was in fact deeply interested in all the revelations which were then slowly emerging about what life was like in Soviet Russia. There had been so much secrecy and speculation up to that point, particularly about the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet in the last few years of the Soviet era, Glasnost and Perestroika had meant we saw regular reports on the TV about missions to the Soviet Space Station Mir – not least when the first British Astronaut, Helen Sharman, took part in a mission to the Space Station in 1991. I remember I also followed the reports on TV about Cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko (pictured right), who spent almost a year on Mir – at that time the longest continuous period any human had so far spent in space.

Despite all the achievements and all the historic firsts of the Soviet Space programme there seemed to be something very makeshift about it all. When compared to the slick operation which was NASA, with its regular launches of its reusable Space Shuttle launching satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the old Soviet Soyuz capsules bouncing back down in the wilds of Kazakhstan still seemed all very Heath Robinson. It’s amazing to think that now, with the US Space Shuttle fleet all retired, the Soyuz spacecraft which was first devised in the 1960s is still the most tried and tested way of getting humans into earth orbit, indeed, it's now the only way.

 Space Station Mir, launched in 1986

Naturally, when a friend of mine who works at the Science Museum here in London told me that they were going to put on an exhibition titled – Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (closes March 13th 2016), I knew it would be an exhibition I’d definitely want to see. And it certainly does not disappoint. In fact it really is quite a remarkable event and one not to be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in space exploration.

Like most people my interest in space flight and astronomy, as well as my interest in the science fiction stories of writer’s such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and John Christopher, began in my childhood and the fascination has never worn thin since. Hence, I was long familiar with the facts about the American space programme, and not least the pieces of NASA hardware which are on permanent display at the Science Museum which I’d first seen when I’d visited as a child, but I knew I was certainly far less familiar with the story of Soviet spacefarers. 

Of course, I knew Sputnik (meaning ‘fellow traveller’) was the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth in 1957. I knew that the Russians were also the first to put a living creature into space – a little dog, called Laika, in Sputnik 2. Then the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and, in 1963, the first woman too, Valentina Tereshkova (who officially opened the exhibition at the Science Museum). And, although I had avidly followed the news reports about Space Station Mir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I’d felt sad watching the TV News footage as Mir burnt up in the earth’s atmosphere over the pacific when it was finally abandoned in 2001, this exhibition has filled a vast hole in my knowledge concerning the real details of the Soviet space programme, largely, I think, because it had always been over-shadowed by the more triumphal story of their US rivals. This exhibition goes a long way to altering that rather one-sided balance.

 Space Station Mir disintegrating as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere in 2001

The exhibition begins with a wonderfully evocative section devoted to the truly visionary pioneers of “Cosmist” thinking, those who saw space exploration as the next logical and necessary step towards a utopian future. There are some wonderful futurist artworks in the form of paintings and sketches, as well as models and even an experimental rocket engine made from a modified blow-torch by Friedrikh Tsander in 1929-1932. The fathers of the Soviet space programme are introduced here. They are Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and Sergei Korolev (1907-1966). By the turn of the twentieth century Tsiolkovsky, we are told, had envisioned both the philosophical and the scientific foundations of cosmonautics. His ripe and vivid imagination dreamed up ideas of the first spacesuits, multi-stage rockets, artificial satellites and orbital space stations. He sketched out calculations of inter-planetary travel, life support systems – “More than simple fantasy, Tsiolkovsky provided future generations with the fundamentals of space flight.” 

 For reasons of Cold War secrecy most representations of Soviet spacecraft were stylised rather than actual

By stark contrast, Sergei Korolev remained almost entirely unknown until his early death in 1966, yet he was the acknowledged ‘Chief Designer’ – the mastermind behind the official Soviet space programme. His identity is thought to have been kept a secret to shield him from Western spies and any possible assassination attempts. He was the founder of GIRD – The Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, but deemed a dangerous intellectual in the Stalin era, and, like many eminent Russian minds of the period, he was exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, returning from this great hardship to be rehabilitated and have his name duly cleared only after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Korolev’s detention camp photograph and his small tin cup, both displayed in the exhibition, are poignant reminders of the less happy side of Soviet history. Korolev later went on to mastermind the first satellite launches and the manned spaceflights which defined the scientific achievements of the Soviet Socialist enterprise in the middle years of the twentieth century.


A small section of the exhibition looking at the use of animals in early spaceflight research largely skirts around the ethical issues, as well as the realities, of experimenting with sending live animals into space. Not that they presumably had much choice in the matter, “Man’s best friends” are nonetheless described as “brave”, and it is noted that Laika travelled on “a one way ticket.” I recall reading a news article which reported that details had finally been unearthed from long forgotten files and firsthand sources which confirm that rather than sleeping amidst the stars (as it had been claimed at the time) the little dog almost certainly met a much more gruesome end as her spacecraft hurtled through the earth’s outer atmosphere. Given that the Science Museum is perennially popular with small children it is perhaps understandable that the exhibition skates around examining this aspect of pioneering spaceflight research in any great detail, giving instead a focus on happier stories of dogs which, like Belka and Strelka, did return safe and well to earth – Strelka even later having a litter of six puppies, one of which (named Pushinka) was given as a gift to John F Kennedy, the President of the United States, and his family by the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev.


Cold War geopolitics, of course, belies the narrative of the exhibition. Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika didn’t simply raise public concerns about animal welfare, it also raised great anxiety throughout the US Government – not least because Sputnik 2 weighed over half a tonne, and hence it could well be used to carry a far more significant payload than a little dog, as this was a machine more than capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It’s no wonder then that the USA, which had almost no significant space programme at the start of the 1960s, famously vowed in a speech made by President Kennedy (which is played here in the exhibition on a lovely old black and white TV set of the period), that it would land a man on the Moon and return him safely back to earth again before the end of that decade.

 Yuri Gagarin 


But by far the largest and most significant point which this exhibition manages to make admirably well is the sheer power of inspiration which space exploration seems to promote internationally, both then and now. The exhibition includes contemporary letters sent by Soviet school children to the Moscow Radio Committee during the Sputnik era volunteering to go into space – writing in 1959, Maria Trofimova, so ardently desired to go into space that she wrote: “… I will not rest until I’m in flight. Do not be concerned if I perish … I beg of you to help me with fulfilling my dream.” Perhaps rather more pragmatically, Maria Kartseva, another schoolgirl also wrote in 1959 saying that she was ready to go to the Moon, not least because she already had “a warm skiing jacket, felt boots, coat and a warm fur hat.” 

 Valentina Tereshkova

It really is a fascinating selection of objects which the Science Museum has managed to borrow and bring together for this exhibition. It can’t have been easy (I’ve organised sending an exhibition to Russia and I for one certainly know how complex the process can be!), especially given the calibre of some of the pieces, such as Tereshkova’s Soyuz landing capsule, plus two unused Luna landing modules (See here for an article detailing the challenges the exhibition team faced). There’s also Helen Sharman’s spacesuit (pictured left). Both Sharman and Tereshkova were the same age, 26, when they each went into space.

One of the items which I liked the best were the control panels from the Soyuz – you can see the one inside Tereshkova’s capsule – which include a small globe mounted in a glass dome on the control console which the Cosmonauts used to track their position over the earth. Again, it’s this distinctly analogue aspect to the pioneering technology which now gives it all such a quaint yet hair-raisingly Heath Robinson-like reality. We’ve all heard the often quoted fact that there is now more computing power in a modern mobile phone than there was in the original Apollo 11 spacecraft. Yet seeing these machines brings the reality of such things home and attests to the sheer intellectual talent and bravery of these people. Tereshkova, we read, realised soon after reaching orbit that her Vostok 6 spacecraft was wrongly aligned, such that when her braking rocket fired it would have shot her into a higher orbit from which she’d never have escaped, and so, if ground control hadn’t swiftly transmitted new instructions to her on-board computer, she would never have returned to earth at all. 



Yet the perils faced by such early cosmonauts weren’t always only encountered beyond the earth’s atmosphere. When Alexei Leonov (pictured right), the first man to perform an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) or ‘spacewalk’, and his crew returned to earth their Voskhod 2 spacecraft overshot their landing site by 400 kilometres and so they had to endure two nights in the freezing wilderness of the Taiga forest before they could be safely picked up. Leonov was also an artist who has taken inspiration from his experiences in space, some of his sketches – such as his magical ‘The Rising of the Sun – View from Orbit (18th March 1965)’, as well as some of his coloured pencils and paintbrushes, are also featured in the exhibition. Had the Soviet manned missions to the Moon not been cancelled Leonov would also have been the first Cosmonaut to set foot on lunar soil. 

The British connection here is interestingly illustrated too by a globe mapping the far-side of the lunar surface which was produced as a result of the Soviet Luna 3 mission in 1962 and was later presented to the Chairman of the BBC by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It was used, appropriately enough, by Patrick Moore in an early episode of his long running TV series, The Sky at Night. Patrick’s famously detailed hand-drawn maps of the lunar surface made from his observations at his own telescope had been used by the Soviets in the preparations for their Luna programme missions. I also learnt that Yuri Gagarin’s first overseas visit following his return from space was to Britain. Given the Cold War animosity at that time, he visited at the invitation of the British Union of Foundry Workers (Gagarin himself having been a former foundry worker in Russia), rather than at the official invitation of the British Government. He did meet the Queen, however, and was given an autographed photograph of the Royal Family. Several decades later, as a further symbol of goodwill between Britain and the USSR, this photograph was taken to space station Mir by Helen Sharman on her mission in 1991, where it was duly stamped with the official seal of the Soviet space station.


Given that the key factor in the development of spaceflight was the competition between the USSR and the USA, I'd rather hoped there might have been more information in the exhibition highlighting the USSR's attempt to create a reuseable spacecraft of its own. A Soviet equivalent of the US Space Shuttle programme was in development and had even managed to make one successful unmanned test flight into space in November 1988. Not much is really known about the Buran shuttle programme, and, given the striking visual similarity it had to the US Space Shuttles, few people realise that the Buran spacecraft were actually very different machines in terms of design, construction, potential capacity and function. It's even been argued (see here) that had the programme been successfully continued rather than abandoned with the political collapse of the USSR it might have advanced human spaceflight capabilities significantly. If you search the internet there are lots of forlorn photos of the decaying remnants of some of the long forgotten Buran prototypes rotting in derelict hangars, but there is one which has been preserved oddly enough in Germany - it can be seen on display at the Technik-Museum in Speyer (see here).

The US Space Shuttle

 The Soviet Buran Spacecraft 


Essentially the exhibition is focussed on the human element of space exploration as much as it is on the technical. It shows how what began in secrecy, arguably as much a propaganda race as a technological race between competing ideologies, moved from being an extension to the programme of advanced ballistics research to one of international accord and peaceful scientific cooperation. I learnt that the first Soviet space station, Salyut, launched in 1977, was essentially a military one charged with gathering intelligence; whereas Mir, which means ‘Peace,’ launched in 1986, was very much an internationally orientated scientific operation, whose spirit very much lives on in today’s International Space Station (ISS)

A few years ago I bought a radio scanner specifically to tune in to the radio transmissions from the ISS. You can, of course, follow and even sometimes communicate with the Cosmonauts and Astronauts onboard the ISS over the internet, but there is still something indescribably special about listening in to the ISS in real time over the radiowaves as you watch its bright dot of light rapidly passing over the clear dome of the night sky. It will be fantastic if I manage to hear Britain’s second Astronaut, Tim Peake, on my scanner at some point over the next seven months whilst he is on-board the ISS (if I do, I shall definitely post a report about it here on the SPA website first).

Whilst spaceflight research might still be astronomically expensive, it also has its undoubted rewards for all of humankind too; most notably in the form of scientific discovery, mutual sharing and exchange of new knowledge, technological developments, greater political understanding and international harmony. The exploits of the early Cosmonauts and Astronauts are undoubtedly an inspiration. If humans can be defined by a single trait, since the earliest advent of our species, arguably that trait could well be the instinct to explore. Hence it is apt that, just as the exhibition began, it closes with a quote from the original space dreamer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (in 1911):  

“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”


 Track the International Space Station in low Earth orbit via the Heavens Above webpage

Visit 'Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age' at The Science Museum, London
(Closes March 13th 2016)