London: Cosmonauts @ The Science Museum

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As you may remember from my post on the Vitkov Monument, I really like Soviet art.  I’m not sure why, because: a.) I’m not a communist, and b.) I hate a lot of mid-century stuff.  Like modernist furniture.  I can’t understand why people go nuts for it, because it is some of the ugliest crap I’ve ever seen.  But something about triumphant Soviet men and women engaging in honest Soviet labour just appeals to me (despite my own distaste for manual labour.  Maybe I’ve been too influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder (DEFINITELY not a communist) and her glorification of farm work.  I blame a lot on my obsession with the Little House books).  So I happily went to see the Cosmonauts exhibition currently at the Science Museum, because I reckoned there would definitely be some stellar Space Age art there.

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I wasn’t wrong, but first, there were a couple confusing things about this exhibition I should mention.  It’s supposed to cost £14, but we were only charged £12.60.  So I’m not sure if there’s an optional donation that they don’t mention, or what the deal was (we also got the National Rail 2 for 1, as usual, so it was £25.20 in total for three people, which is not too bad.  £42 would have been way too much).  Also, even though the signs make it look like the exhibition is in the basement, it’s actually on the 1st floor (I briefly worked in the Science Museum cloakroom, so I know all too well that is the only thing in the basement on the that side of the museum, but it’s definitely not obvious otherwise).  Finally, although the man working at the entry to the exhibit told us no photography was allowed, one of the other visitors asked a guard about it while we were in there, and he said it was fine to take pictures without flash.  So I’m still not sure what their official policy is (nor do they, it would seem), but I have some pictures because we were explicitly told it was ok, and no one seemed to care.  I’m not being one of those people, I swear!

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Anyway, I’m glad we could take pictures (even though maybe we shouldn’t have), because there was lots of cool stuff in there, not least the art, including a pretty baller picture right when we walked in, of a bunch of Soviet workers being industrious under the moon (which I don’t have a photo of, because we weren’t sure if photography was allowed at that point.  Actually, I somehow ended up with very few pictures of the artwork, after all that). Yeah, I also love stuff with the moon on it (I blame my teenage dabbling in Wicca for that), so I thought all the paintings and posters in here were fantastic.

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The exhibit basically took you through the Soviet space programme in chronological order, starting with the 1920s, and these “crazy” futuristic sketches (that actually weren’t all that crazy relative to The Jetsons or Epcot), and a couple of guys who were apparently instrumental in creating the space programme (one of them was sent to a gulag for a while (because Stalin), and they had his uniform and cup, and the other one was almost deaf, so they had his homemade ear trumpet), and progressing through Sputnik, and the manned (and canined) space missions, and ending with Mir and the International Space Station.

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Now,  being American, I don’t actually know that much about the cosmonauts, what with the whole Cold War and everything.  (The Soviet Union had already pretty much broken down by the time I was of school age, but Americans still aren’t too keen on Russia generally.  Besides, the only famous person who ever attended my elementary school was this astronaut named Ron Sega, and he would come every year to do a talk, so our space education was pretty NASA-orientated.)  But I get the impression they were pretty popular in Britain, especially after once walking past some council estate in Clapham where all the buildings were named after Gagarin and his colleagues.  So I suppose this was a good opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, but I was more interested in tchotchkes like the Yuri Gagarin nesting dolls, and the mock-up of Laika’s space pod thingy, which even had a stuffed dog in it.  (I’m very partial to Laika, because I feel bad for her.  I also like Belka and Strelka, but at least they made it back.)

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They had a tonne of space capsules and satellites and junk here, though I was somewhat upset that the chick standing around with an angled mirror on a stick so you could see inside them disappeared just as we approached her.  I’m too short to see that high on my own!  But the designs of the things were cool enough that even just looking at them from the outside was ok, I guess (not gonna lie, I’m still kind of salty about not getting to use the mirror).

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There was a short video about the American space programme, but most of the focus here was definitely on the Soviets, as it should be, given the exhibition title (the Americans probably get enough attention, to be fair).  I thought all the souvenirs Yuri Gagarin was given were pretty neat, including a signed picture of the Queen and her family (dishy youngish Philip), and a little doll from Japan that was later taken into space by the first Japanese astronaut.  I was also fascinated by the various space suits worn on the International Space Station, especially the one with vacuum pumps to force blood into the legs, to equalise blood pressure upon re-entry.  It looked like something out of a ’50s Sci-Fi film, or maybe a bit like the wrong trousers from Wallace and Gromit (I hate that damn penguin, and Wallace is also a major jerk in that one.  Ugh).  I am also, of course, extremely interested in how cosmonauts poop (it’s discussed pretty thoroughly in Mary Roach’s excellent Packing for Mars, because she appears to be a lady who shares my interest in bodily functions), so I was glad there was a toilet from the space station here as well.  And the display of Russian space foods was also intriguing, especially because most of them sounded so gross (there was no Tang, sadly enough).

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The exhibition ended with a weird blue room that was kind of like a womb-regression experience, with soft music and ambient lighting, and a statue of a cosmonaut in a pod hanging out in the middle.  But right before it, there was this awesome triptych from the ’80s depicting a cosmonaut and his family, where the woman looks sad because her husband is leaving her behind, but the cosmonaut was, in their words, “raring to go.”  (And indeed I should say he was.  That was one saucy cosmonaut.  Rawr.)

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When we exited, I was thrilled anew when I spied the Cosmonauts shop.  Like, I need to mention how superlative it was.  I was just as impressed by the shop as anything in the exhibit itself (which is why I would have made a terrible communist).  There was a whole wall full of Soviet space art, and it wasn’t too badly priced either (a tenner for posters, £8 for an A4, though of course that doesn’t include frames, which is always the stupidly expensive bit, and why the two prints I bought are still just sitting on the floor of my flat instead of on the wall).  And they had magnets, postcards, coasters, mugs…almost anything you could want really.  Even a space-helmet-clad-Belka brooch for a fiver, which I obviously bought (it’s already on one of my coats).  And you got a free silver Yuri Gagarin tote bag if you spent at least 20 quid, which was not hard to do.  The only thing they were missing was astronaut ice cream (maybe cosmonauts don’t eat it?), but they have that in the shop downstairs if you’re really desperate, and they also had apple crumble in a tube from the Russian-themed cafe just outside, which I was too scared to try.  So it wasn’t great for my budget, but damn, I was impressed with the whole experience. Again, I don’t think it’s worth the full price (almost nothing is), but I probably got my money’s worth for what we paid.  The stuff in here was just really cool, especially as most of it had actually been in space at some point.  4/5.  It’s on until the 13th of March, so you’ve still got a bit of time to check it out, if you’re in London.

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  1. Very cool! I’ve never really seen any Soviet art and likewise haven’t heard much about the Soviet space program before, but this exhibit sounds great.

    1. I used to go to this communist bookstore once in a while back when I was into punk, because they had a lot of anti-government/political philosophy books, so I guess I got into Soviet art back then (I used to own a red CCCP shirt with a hammer and sickle on it…I was a weird, combative kid). But I really started to appreciate it after going to former communist countries, like the Czech Republic. I mean, it is basically propaganda, and probably came at the expense of more expressive/individualistic forms of art, but it still looks cool.

  2. Oh my god, this is one of my favourites. Sounds like a blast (sorry, lame pun) and I really wish I could get over to see it. I love Soviet art too and know what you mean about the appeal of their agricultural stuff. I have a number of ‘70s reproductions of old Soviet posters and it’s very satisfying to see strong, handsome men and women wielding scythes in bold colour.
    I’m with you on the sweet dogs so the Laika part would’ve hurt my heart – but the dishy cosmonaut sounds like he’d have helped.
    Also, I hate that penguin too! When he walks in the house and turns suddenly to look at Gromit, I always get a chill.
    … sorry, I had a lot to say about this.

    1. I like long comments! It makes me feel like people actually read this crap! And I like lame puns, in case you haven’t figured that out by now. Your posters sound rad, maybe I should get some agricultural ones to go with the space stuff, if I ever get around to buying frames. And I hate that penguin so much that I find it difficult to watch The Wrong Trousers, even though I love Wallace and Gromit (well, mainly Gromit, Wallace has his moments, but he is kind of a dick). I prefer The Curse of the Were-Rabbit because the rabbits are adorable (my brother actually made me a couple of them out of Sculpey years ago) and that posh guy and his dog suck, but they don’t make my blood boil in the same way as that ass-penguin.

      1. Bah! Your posts are wonderful and always a treat. And I agree about Wallace – he can be such a tiresome dick – and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Those rabbits are far too cute. I would welcome an infestation. Your brother sounds like a pretty good guy for making you some. That’s a pretty genius sibling move.

      2. Thanks! You’re too kind, as always. I think my brother was just really into Sculpey at the time, and was always looking for new stuff to make, but you’re right, he’s not a bad kid. If a 23 year old is still a kid…

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