Let’s say your job is to tell the story of space from the perspective of every human who has wondered what's out there.
To start, you'd have to establish the backdrop itself—the vast nothingness of space and its trillions of stars, planets, nebulae, black holes and known-unknowns that have inspired curiosity for thousands of years. Once that's done, you'll need to document humanity's myriad attempt to reach it—the myths, narratives, depictions and products that chart its course from ancient astronomy to the first human on Mars. Now, you're not just depicting stars and rockets, but the complete story of humanity at its ambitious best. A story of mysticism turned science, of cowboy playground turned political stadia, and campy TV-backdrop to the setting for some of the finest artistic visions of our time. Sound easy?
Margaret Weitekamp is a curator at the U.S National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C's monument to spacecraft, memorabilia and fictional ephemera that charts humanity's exploration of the final frontier. Outside of The Louvre, it is the second most visited museum in the world. Her work has helped tell the story of space from both a place of historical significance and a platform for design and artistic visions like no other. In this conversation, she makes a case for the arts as playing just an important role in traversing the skies as science does, and why it's designers as much as engineers that will help us get there.
Why don’t we start with a little bit about your role and the collection at the U.S Air and Space Museum.
Sure! I am the chair of the Space History department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. I'm also the curator of our Social and Cultural History of Space Flight Collection which encompasses about six thousand artefacts. I work with memorabilia from the U.S spaceflight program: patches, hats, t-shirts, the things through which ordinary people might make a connection to spaceflight. Then there is the Space Science-Fiction collection, which includes screen-used props as well as commercially available memorabilia: toys, games, pins, buttons. It is largely a US-centric collection which goes back to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the late 1920s and runs forward until today.
[These artefacts] speak to the way ordinary people interact with, dream about, imagine, or are inspired by space flight. It’s a really lofty collection about humanity imagining entirely different worlds and distances we could never cover in our earthly lifetimes.
At first glance, it may seem odd that a museum of Smithsonian-calibre places an equal emphasis on pop-culture as engineering, but only in space are those things so inter-dependent. So I’m curious, what do you think has had the bigger impact in the general interest in space over the years, pop-culture or true history?
I can’t seperate the two. We know that the people designing and building spacecraft in the 1960s were reading science-fiction. Robert Goddard (who created the first liquid-fuelled engine) was an avid reader of Jules Verne, and some of the early rocket pioneers were fascinated by the stories of H.G Wells. They were looking to these visionaries just as much as their own imagination of what space-flight could be.
That seems to be what surprises people the most, that we’ve had this growing awareness of pop-culture and ‘low-culture’ as historical and important. It surprises people how early the U.S Air and Space Museum began collecting these pieces; as far back as the early-70s. They recognised how integral imagination was to the story of invention and inspiration that they wanted to tell.
The most common question I’m asked is why the premier museum of aviation and space flight in the United States has an imaginary spaceship model (the original Star Trek Starship Enterprise) in the lobby. But I think [that artefact] tells an important story about what it meant to imagine a space-faring species; to build not just a spaceship but a starship, and travel not just planet to planet but star system to star system. It speaks to those leaps of imagination that are essential to the technological story of people, business, politics and power that we’re telling in other parts of the museum.
I feel that concept artists in science fiction don’t get enough credit for imagining new technologies and societal structures that often end up only serving as a backdrop to a cowboy narrative. Can you explain the difference between science-fiction and speculative non-fiction and the role they both play in each other’s success?
The distinction between speculative non-fiction and science fiction is essentially the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction, right? It’s between the pieces that stick closer to what’s scientifically realistic, and the pieces that go full-speed into adventure with less attention paid to the source of propulsion.
When you look at the most adventurous of science fiction, you would be surprised about how much the creatives keep up with what is technologically feasible. They can take that information two-steps further and extrapolate it into fiction. I had a chance to talk to Andrew Probert (who developed the design of the Enterprise for Star Trek: The Next Generation). One of the first things he did was to look at the Enterprise design from the original series before studying aircraft carriers, cars and all kinds of tech from his era to say ‘if you had technology of the time and then ran it forward the same number of decades, what kinds of changes in line and dimension and aesthetic do you see?’ And he could apply those same to turn the original Starship Enterprise from the 60s into something that would look like it belonged a generation later. The rigour with which creative people dig into technology and scientific journals, and then wrap their findings into a good story with strong characters to advance the adventure, is the fun part of thinking about this as a scholar.
It reminds me of how, during the construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney envisioned Tomorrowland as an ever-changing park that would always reflect the future. But as time went on (and budgets tightened), it became stuck as more of a retro-futuristic monument to American optimism. Are you working to evolve the collection, or perhaps lean into the museum as a tribute to a particular era in history.
As a collector and curator, I'm looking out for what's available, what's out there, what people are interested in and how we bring that into the collection so that we are preserving that representation of how people are excited about it. Sometime’s that’s as simple as the design of a patch for a new initiative, which is where the dreams of that initiative are distilled down to a carefully thought out set of symbols.
It also involves a lot of collaboration. I have a colleague, Matthew Shindell, who has been leading a project on Sonic Afrofuturism looking at the African diaspora and how the future has been imagined in different ways. Approaching history from that cultural background and bringing scholars to the Smithsonian to talk to us is incredibly valuable. For example, we were recently convening folks like George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic to discuss how they were imagining the mothership in the 1970s, then conversing with Vernon Reid of Living Colour to explore his ideas on Afrofuturism. I love opportunities to collaborate with colleagues who are thinking creatively about how we bring these differing ideas into the Smithsonian.
Science-fiction has, historically, been a really important way for us to grapple with our fears as much as our hopes and dreams.
That’s what I find mind-blowing. The U.S has its own aesthetic but, as you say, there are many other perspectives of how we would travel to the stars from many different cultures and sub-cultures. So at first, 6,000 items in the collection seems like a lot, but then it’s like ‘that’s not nearly enough’
No, it's nowhere close to enough! A colleague once said to me that being a curator is like standing next to a rushing river with a bucket. Sure you can dip your bucket in and get some water, but to what extent have you really captured the river? And how do you then display it in a way that allows people to appreciate the entirety of that river? It’s about bringing in the right pieces at the right time with the knowledge and understanding that you’re handing it over to the next generation who are going to do completely new, innovative things with it.
Have there been any recent depictions of space-flight in the creative world that really opened your eyes to where we could be going?
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was an incredible vision and I love the story of his collaboration with [theoretical astrophysicist] Kip Thorne. Thorne was consulting on the film, but he realised that the special effects team were using similar data-sets for their computer generated imaging. So Thorne wrote them his equations and journals about how a black-hole might behave, and was astounded with what they came back with; a sphere with a flattened accretion disc around it. Up until that point, we had always thought of a black hole as like a sinkhole. But this visualisation of a three-dimensional rip in space-time set him back because it had never occurred to him. But once he saw it, he thought ‘yes of course that’s what it would be’. Fast forward to 2019, we had the event-horizon telescope which was an international collaboration to visualise the once-unimaginable black hole in real-time. That is the stuff of fiction made real and is just so wonderful.
One of the things I’m most interested in as a social and cultural historian is the way science fiction reflects back to us the things we’re most afraid of, and the things we most hope we could do.
Not to make this too much about COVID-19, but science fiction has been re-imagining things like disease for decades. The original treatment for H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds started from a conversation about the effect of British contact with the Aboriginal population in Tasmania, and the way they were decimated by diseases that the British had developed immunity to. It didn’t start as an imagination about Mars, but an imagination about germ theory. Science-fiction has, historically, been a really important way for us to grapple with our fears as much as our hopes and dreams. And to put that onto some alien planet allows us to deal with race relations or gender equality or medical issues or social unrest in ways that are really powerful.
I really think it taps into humanity’s deep imagination, whether through creativity, science or technology. We have largely been confined to one planet, but the more we explore our own world and solar system, the more we realise it’s even stranger and more amazing than we could have imagined.