In case you hadn’t noticed, this Saturday marks the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And for Kevin Fewster, outgoing director of Royal Museums Greenwich, the “obvious place” to commemorate mankind’s giant leap is the National Maritime Museum.
Hang on, you might think, reading his words in the catalogue accompanying The Moon, an ambitious new exhibition featuring more than 180 objects. Surely there are more obvious places to observe this anniversary? The Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where the Apollo 11 mission lifted off, for one. Or, closer to home, the Science Museum, where the rust-coloured, conical Apollo 10 command module – used during the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landing – still inspires schoolchildren. I vividly remember traipsing past it, carrying my packed lunch, as a kid.
Perhaps. But, as Fewster points out, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was founded by Charles II in 1675 to track lunar motions, to improve maritime navigation. So, for the seafarers who have lived and worked for centuries at Greenwich, their daily endeavours governed by the tidal whims of Earth’s only permanent natural satellite, the moon has always been of central importance.
Unsurprisingly, much of the exhibition is devoted to Apollo 11 and the wider context of the Cold War Space Race. There is a copy of the minute-by-minute flight plan detailing the complex descent of the lunar module Eagle, as well as the headset worn by Buzz Aldrin to communicate with ground control – a monochrome skullcap, with seemingly long, flappy ears, known as a “Snoopy cap”, because of its resemblance to the cartoon dog.
Perhaps because the exhibition has been curated by an art historian, special emphasis is given to the extraordinary photography taken during the crewed Apollo missions, which continued until 1972. A film magazine for the Hasselblad camera used during the first moon landing once contained the negatives of arguably the most famous photographs in history – including the shots of Aldrin in his squidgy-looking spacesuit, his expression hidden behind a gold-plated visor, standing by the American flag.
Nearby, we encounter the camera that remained on the command module with Michael Collins, as he orbited the moon. “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” Collins wrote on the far side, after losing contact with humanity.
On a basic level, then, the show offers a reminder of the power of images: we can all picture the achievements of Project Apollo, while the USSR’s cosmic breakthroughs live on in the popular imagination chiefly in the form of graphic propaganda posters. A striking example here celebrates the launch in 1957 of Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit Earth, which kick-started the Space Race.
In the sections about Apollo, the prevailing tone is celebratory, but there is room for dissenting voices, including a recording of Gil Scott-Heron’s caustic 1970 spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon”. More than 400,000 people worked on America’s decade-long space programme, which cost billions of dollars and took place against a turbulent political backdrop of race riots and civic unrest. Already during the Sixties, some saw Apollo as an expensive exercise in nationalistic muscle-flexing, and resented it swallowing such a significant proportion of their taxes.
Any doubts that this supposedly utopian programme was co-opted by politics are quashed by the sight of a few speckles of moon rock, like freshly ground black pepper, presented as a diplomatic gift by President Richard Nixon to British prime minister Harold Wilson – suggesting that the Apollo missions were conducted on behalf of America, rather than “all mankind”. (“We came in peace for all mankind” read the lunar plaque left amid the “magnificent desolation”, as Aldrin described it, of the moon’s surface.)
Incidentally, this isn’t the only lunar sample in the show. But disappointingly, “moon rock”, despite sounding so enchanting, is a dull, dun-coloured substance, with little visual interest. While the moon has always inspired poetry and flights of fancy – the 17th-century Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Riccioli set the template for lunar nomenclature by coming up with evocative, emotional names for geographical features, such as the Sea of Tranquillity – the reality is, ironically, down-to-earth. From afar, the moon appears romantic and mysterious. Up close, it’s just a rock.
Still, the moon’s perennially romantic allure is what the rest of this exhibition is about. The silver thread that binds together the show is humanity’s supremely narcissistic capacity to project its own obsessions, fears, and desires onto this 4.5-billion-year-old celestial body, rotating through space almost 240,000 miles away from Earth.
Indeed, since ancient times, the moon’s shiny orb has reflected whatever we have wanted to see – as an endearing wall text, outlining the curious creatures discerned by mankind in its crater-ridden surface, makes plain. While we in the West make out the features of a lop-sided, open-mouthed man, people in China spy the outlines of a jade rabbit called Yutu, cosmic companion to the moon goddess Chang’e.
This cultural history of the moon is a theme established from the off: the show begins with “I want! I want!”, a tiny engraving no bigger than a cigarette card by William Blake, in which a starlit figure scales a ladder from the Earth’s surface that tapers toward a crescent moon in the night sky.
It is the first of many moonlit scenes by artists, including Constable and Turner, on display alongside all the astrolabes, sextants, and various other instruments. In a Greenwich-sensitive section devoted to telescopic observations of the moon, for instance, we come across 18th-century British pastellist and astronomer John Russell’s stunning lunar studies, presented against rich blue backgrounds. These appear alongside the finest artwork in the exhibition, on loan from a private collection: Russell’s portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, clutching one of the artist’s charismatic and detailed moonscapes, its sheet pleasingly well-thumbed.
The trouble is that too many of the featured artworks are of middling to low quality – more moonshine than rapturous moonlight – suggesting that they are included not on aesthetic merits, but to illustrate specific curatorial points.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating and ambitious show. But, at times, like the yearning figure in Blake’s print, it strives to do too much, and risks coming across as an illustrated lecture, rather than a satisfying visual whole.
From Jul 19 until Jan 5, 2020; information: rmg.co.uk/moon50