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A letter to MUSEUM magazine and AAM from 250 Miles up at the International Space Station Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I continue to be gratified by the feedback on our “future” issue of Museum magazine. (Your digital copy available here.) Comments coming in through Twitter, email, and text message include “weird and wonderful,” “inspiring,” and (most frequently) “thought-provoking.” A few people were concerned to see an obituary for Cecelia Walls, the Alliance’s content and editorial strategist. Rest assured that Cecelia is alive and well, and had a blast writing her own obit. (I do confess to having suggested that the mechanism for her demise be a morally-challenged self-driving car.) 

As promised, we are extending this exercise in future-fiction by publishing additional essays and responses here on the blog. Today’s post is by Rich Faron, president of Museum Explorer. Rich expands a story thread that Museum 2040 touched on briefly: the future of museums in space. 

When it was first unveiled, the idea for the now world-renowned International Space Station Museum (ISSM) emerged as a lightning rod for not only the unresolved issues of our own nation but in fact for many struggles being grappled with around the entire world. ‘Why, ‘said so many, ‘should so much valuable emotional energy [and more to the point, money] be marshaled in an effort to build something which most people could only conceive of at best, as symbolic?’
A lot of smart people dispensed with the notion completely saying that it could never be undertaken as a true ‘bricks and mortar’ project and besides what about getting visitors to the front door? Well, at least the second argument turned out to be not so much a problem as both ‘Twilight Tours’ and the almost economical ‘Public Space Bus Authority’ now regularly shepherd thousands of people on tours across the heavens every week. And the ISSM is being scheduled now as regular stop.

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But back then for most folks the timing was simply bad. The original concept made its first splash even as our country still struggled to recover and mend the many wounds rendered by decades of political infighting following 9/11 that flowed from the extreme nature of partisan politics beginning in the late 20-teens.

But, people were somehow inspired by this ‘Space Museum’ idea, and so it grew and took hold. Ordinary people were prodded to ponder and weigh the merits of the proposed museum for ‘All of Us’. A place floating in space 250 miles above our heads. The rally cry was simple, as a species we needed this right now and if we could pull it off, if we could actually do it, it might truly stand as a commemoration for everyone everywhere of what we knew we were capable of achieving as human beings.

The moment that the idea first sprang into consciousness is easy to pinpoint. A letter was read aloud by an attendee speaker at the AAM annual museum conference in 2018 during an average session, the letter was in closing to the speaker’s presentation and it came to her from an elementary school class in Peoria, Illinois. They wanted to know one simple thing; “When would the first museum in space open?.” The kids were prompted by their teacher to come up with an idea for a museum celebrating all Earth’s creatures, plants and peoples. And like children often do, they picked the obvious if not perfect place for their museum: up.

Looking back now, and as I sit here in the museum lobby, gazing out the panoramic window with a view of Earth below, the sharp-edged disk of ‘Terra’ cutting across the blanket of space, it seems a bit easy to forget that once, the shock of taking on such an enormous task seemed crazy. But when the initial ‘nuts’ of it passed, a buzz brewed up almost overnight and soon everyone harbored an opinion about the ‘Museum in Space.’

That idea once read out loud in that modest professional meeting gained its own momentum; it spread and grew. The response from some more exuberant corners of the world was almost immediate if not crazy. “Hey why not!” Collectively and indeed with a bit of what became known as ‘Earth Patriotism,’ many coalitions of ‘regular’ folks began to scurry about and to take on, for no other reason than cause itself, the job to make it a reality. And these were not just museum people (although there were many of them), but all kinds of ordinary humans.

Pushing back against the aforementioned but no doubt legitimate concerns and resistance held by many people, the ‘believers’ simply began work on solving the problems. Collectively engaging in a process of pooling creativity and human resources on a project management scale not previously witnessed. In retrospect, it now appears much less a heroic effort than a simply practical one. Frenzy was in fact the only means for overcoming the inherent inertia and for getting the job done. At some critical point, the ISSM project simply gained an uninterruptible momentum.

By combining talents across the board design schematics were drawn up and engineering challenges were presented, researched, developed, resolved and manufactured. As it turns out the irony may be that getting the space museum ‘building’ funded and built and even launching the components into orbit was less a grind than what was needed to overcome the gravity of curating the content for a museum intended as representation of an entire planet. It’s not worth rehashing any of the specifics, suffice to say there was a lot of hand wringing, teeth gnashing and even perhaps a few bruised knuckles. But the work got done leading to an unsurpassed achievement a framework for the first ‘Off-World’ museum.

To be clear, it was a story of human will put to the test. The museum development portion was nothing short of an emotional marathon. Grasping at messages, meaning, reverence, relevance, identifying iconic imagery, artifacts, specimens and objects and weaving all these into a shape and finally something with form and real substance. Exhibits had to be developed, designed, built and shipped…” INTO SPACE!”

It was the rocket fuel octane version of ‘Collect, Preserve & Interpret.’ In the end, the international team of museum workers were able with the help of visionary engineers to grip real presence. It was a difficult needle to thread because egos are always in play and yet common cause to complete the dream was the arbiter of the process and allowed success to be plucked from the dangerous clutches of vanity and too much of any one form of individual expression. It wound up being a truly UNIFIED thing. They built a package that works. I am here now floating a bit above the bench below me a witness to that success.

Today the International Space Station Museum swirls above the Earth and while visitation remains somewhat limited, the ability for casual travelers from all walks of life to make the trek up here grows all the time. No pilgrim who encounters this museum experience, walks away unchanged. Along the museum’s Bio-Map corridor, an arboretum and garden walkway of living plants worldwide thrives suspended above the clouds. With root-balls gently cradled in glazed dew dripped cases plant life drift in zero gravity, floating across a backdrop of the sunlit side of

the earth, every word trails off into a whisper and emotions are turned fundamental and raw and become too difficult for even those poets who have visited the museum to render.

The adjacent and aptly named Ark of Memory captures people’s imaginations not in their heads but somewhere in their hearts. One can feel individual emotions being manufactured within this visual capsule of objects 254 miles straight up. Artifacts and specimens in twos, a pair each selected from every country on earth below, distill visually what we are capable of as a species when our intentions are simple but our gestures grand. It is what defines us human beings to see the products of our hands framed entirely by the place we call home.

And I would be remiss and truly not a museum person myself were I not to marvel at the display mechanics. The Ark display is itself an intricate network of filament threads that crisscross the chamber top to bottom and side to side intimately and invisibly holding the hundreds of objects safely. Definitely a nominee for the mount-makers ‘Hall of Fame.’

And there is programming! The very first school group to visit the ISSM will be fittingly enough, kids from Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in West Peoria, Illinois. They arrive next month by space bus, compliments of a grant facilitated through the American Alliance of Museums. Just exactly what the children will be doing during their visit remains top secret however, both the earthbound members of the ISSM Education Dept. in Florida and the two members of the museum’s rotating staff on board the space station guarantee an experience. No duh!

I need to wrap this up but indulge me regarding two more things. While most of you have seen the images of ISSM and its exhibits streamed through every format and social media resource I have to mention following.

What is a museum without a ‘Beast’? What is a museum without a signature attraction? Well the ISSM doesn’t disappoint. The world’s largest and most complete Plesiosaur, a Jurassic monster all razor teeth, arching ribs and endless neck reaching over 90 feet in length swims across its very own cosmic capsule. This incredibly fragile and nearly complete fossil specimen could have never been mounted on earth safely because of the natural stresses on the fragile material due to gravity’s relentless pull.

Instead the creature floats almost freely in Zero G held together in position safely by nearly invisible glass rods and filaments and accented by deep blue liquid-like waves of light that pass through the mount. The best part – Visitors are able to float weightless around the extinct reptile viewing it and evening turning its aquarium-like tube 360 degrees, communing with every facet of the extinct evolutionary wonder.

Finally, the incredibly anticipated Arts Future Gallery will open very soon. With the international call for entries complete and the judging now completed, artists from around the world are beginning the process of uploading their files to be replicated by the Museums array of 4 – 3D printers. The idea for creating a sculpture competition utilizing the 3D printers that were used to make building parts during the museum’s assembly came from earth bound veteran museum exhibit preparator Michael Paha in Kansas City. An artist himself who worked on the team that developed the Ark of Memory exhibit, Mike suggested that the 3D printers could be used to create new sculptures for the art gallery by artists below. The first exhibition will feature pieces designed to turn freely while attached by a tether to a traditionally styled pedestal.

The beauty of the International Space Station Museum is that there was no one person, no genius responsible and no solo maker of this place. It belonged to everyone and now stands as a truly collaborative effort. It is ours altogether. In 2018 when the idea for this place was set in motion those citizens were not fully prepared to imagine or predict such an outcome as this. But because they possessed a true spirit, their vision never dimmed and their hand never stayed or interrupted.

What the Earthlings of 2018 handed to us in 2040 was more than a gift. They established new rules for engagement. 2018 handed over inspiration to 2040. We now possess a tool in the form of this Museum in space that will flourish in the hands of an as yet unknown future interpreter. A newer version of ourselves, a giver to give form to our hopes and compassion and perhaps even on occasion to our sorrow. This museum represents a new and collective sense of perspective and worldwide self-confidence. 

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