Science museums are failing to embrace a more diverse vision of spaceflight
When I walk into science museums with exhibits about outer space, I notice, overwhelmingly, these galleries are painted black. Individual artifacts are lit up as relics within the hushed and darkened temple of science. Gallery spaces showcase humanity reaching for the stars. Instead of looking to the past, these galleries often look forward. In many instances, some part of the exhibit asks what might the future of this technology be and where might we go next.
Across London’s science museums, the galleries invariably indicate that ‘out’ into space is the ultimate destination. In Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, Anthropologist Lisa Messeri argues that planetary science researchers themselves have transformed outer space from indefinite ‘space’ away from humanity into ‘places’ that are tangible to both the individuals studying them and the people who see them in popular science communication. But in creating familiar and legible “places” in outer space, these exhibits often limit the future to the experiences of the mainstream, which leaves out representations of queer and other marginalized identities and poses the question of who exactly has a right to such futures.
Take for instance the lone deck chair on Mars in a diorama about the future of space at the Science Museum, London. The chair, just slightly higher than an average seven-year-old child, is the focal point of the diorama depicting an imagined space-place. The diorama calls to mind a nostalgic past: the candy stripes would not be out of place in historic promotional prints for railway trips to the British seaside that one might see in other museums. Conditioned by the male gaze of its creators, this image of the historic British beach seaside is almost inseparably, and imperceptibly, intertwined with western European white, nuclear, working- or middle-class families. In the article “Beyond the Bathing Belle,” historian Ralph Harrington shows how these posters construct heteronormative mothers or wives and their children. In the diorama, the presence of children’s beach essentials—a bucket, spade; and that parental favourite, sun cream—suggest they will be back shortly do exactly the same work. The diorama transports a familiar scene of British domestic life to the surface of Mars.
Even images that purport to represent all of humanity are limited. An opposing wall in the same gallery features a reproduced illustration of the plaque that was originally attached to each of the Pioneer Spacecraft, which were flung into deep space, past Jupiter and out of the solar system, in 1972 and 1973. This plaque, a project initiated by science communicator Carl Sagan, was designed to be read by aliens who might encounter the spacecraft. The plaque included a map to orient the aliens to earth, telling them where the spacecraft had some from, and an illustration of a pair of male and female human figures, indicating who had sent it. The illustration is accompanied in the gallery by a quote attributed to Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” The Pioneer plaque aims to present a complete image of “humanity,” as it makes this leap into space from interstellar infancy, represented by one man and one woman.
The illustration obscures queer possibilities for the future in prioritizing cis heteronormativity by linking the depicted biological sex to the genders of the people. The image implies the pair is engaged in a heterosexual relationship, a reading that Sagan’s reiterated with his suggestion that the two should be holding hands. This more explicit design element was eventually removed, as alien viewers might think the two joined figures represented one creature. The woman is standing, almost leaning to one side, apparently passively watching the man, who in turn is active in what might be a wave, intended as a sign of good will. She is smaller than he is, and without defined genitalia—less sexual, sanitized, and, as researcher William R. Macauley notes, passive like Grecian statues in art museums. In drawing on the past in this way, the exhibits reproduce a whitewashed past that has been repackaged for a potential future in space.
At the Royal Observatory Greenwich Weller Astronomy Galleries, a short video explores space science. Narrated by a male voice, the video asks the audience to “begin here” on Earth, while the video shows someone looking at the stars. This someone, although only an outline, able-bodied and male. Because of the line-drawing style of the video, this person is coloured in white. While not explicit, the whiteness of the interpreter, the white speech patterns and tone of the voiceover narrating, and the coloring-in of the person encourage audiences to view this lone stargazer as white.
Together, these themes impress on the viewer a limited image of who is being asked to begin the exploration of space. In these galleries, exploration is clearly masculine, white, and able-bodied. Where there is an active participant who is clearly beginning our steps out into space (fictitious as they may be), these galleries present men. If there is more than one person, they represent a heteronormative family with a child or a passive, supportive female partner.
Without providing distinct, clear, alternative narratives in these gallery spaces, these images position heterosexual future family structures, gendered reproductive capabilities, and normative sexualities as the dominant narrative in these new, but made to feel familiar, ‘places’ in space. Public discourse in museums, newspapers, films, or books systematically ‘Others' those of minoritized sexualities and genders with either poor representation or a complete erasure from the canonical history of space travel, and as a result, they aren’t included in the ideals of space-faring humanity.
While these (hetero)normative close readings of these ‘places’ in space might seem overthought, they are reiterated in other media as well. Headlines such as those circulated in September 2017—“Mars mission may be all-female to avoid astronauts having sex during 1.5-year journey”—highlight heteronormtivity. Readers are clearly meant to associate “sex” exclusively with opposite-gender relationships, dismissing altogether the possibility of any of these women having sex with each other. Not only does this headline imply the astronauts are heterosexual by default, it presumes that “sex” is only important, and consquently problematic, in that it might lead to procreation.
At the 2018 Victoria and Albert Museum’s speculative exhibition The Future Starts Here, a section on planetary design asks in a prompt floating above the installation, “If Mars is the answer, what is the question?” If Mars really is humanity’s next step into outer space, the question is ‘who can go there?’ And if Mars is the answer, will it be the answer for everyone? Will Mars continue to be the domain of those who fit a heteronormative, white, cis, able-bodied mainstream vision of the future currently populating these museums?