THE MOON at the National Maritime Museum
Updated: Jan 7
Two of the most iconic photos ever are Earthrise, the shot of our blue planet taken from Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon, and the picture of Neil Armstrong’s bootprint in the lunar dust after he became the first human to step on to an alien world. Both feature prominently in The Moon, a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum marking the 50th anniversary of the landing.
But the show is not just about the space race of recent times – it sets out to explain why we have been so fascinated by our nearest cosmic neighbour since the dawn of civilisation.
Using artefacts and images from Royal Museums Greenwich’s own collection or loans from around the world, The Moon traces this fixation from Babylonia more than 2,000 years ago to contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili by way of Pharaonic Egypt, Classical Greece, ancient China, medieval Arabia, Galileo and Renaissance Europe, artistic geniuses such as Turner and Constable, writers, poets and even 20th century toys and film-makers. Frankly, the only thing missing is a piece of Wallace and Gromit’s lunar Wensleydale cheese.
The result is an exhibition that is not only epic in its ambition but is also epic in detail. For example, I defy anyone not to be awed by the inscribed clay tablet from Uruk which spells out eclipse rituals, the moon pastels of Georgian artist John Russell, the 25 amazingly detailed maps of the entire visible moon’s surface hand-drawn by Bexleyheath civil servant and astronomy buff Hugh Percy Wilkins, a fabulously illustrated book on the heavens printed in 1540, a miraculous 800-year-old astrolabe, a gorgeous 1700 gold moondial made in France, a drawing of a chained-up inmate of Bedlam entitled Norris The Lunatic by Regency cartoonist George Cruikshank, a camera from Apollo 11 and a sequence from Georges Méliès’ extraordinary 1902 silent movie A Trip To The Moon, a contender for the most important film ever made.
The section on the space race between the USA and USSR is also awe-inspiring and gives due credit to the early successes of the Soviets with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin before America stole their thunder by putting the first men on the moon.
The exhibition is rightly so confident of winning over everyone who sees it that it even acknowledges the conspiracy theorists’ view that the moon landings were faked. But no rational person could think like that after seeing the photographs, films and items – including fragments of rock brought back from the lunar surface and the headgear Buzz Aldrin wore under his helmet on Apollo 11 - now on display in Greenwich.
The final section of the show looks to the future by raising ethical and moral questions about how we might try to exploit the moon, either for its natural resources or in a cynical quest to conquer, and whether or not we should be spending trillions on space adventures when so much of our home planet is racked by poverty, disease and hunger.
It’s a commendably humane finale to a show that perfectly balances the tension between Man’s romantic vision of the moon as a divine muse and the darker side of humanity that views it as an opportunity for ever-greater power and wealth.
I urge you to go and see this stunning show for yourself. And while you’re there, pop next door to the Queen’s House and see Mortal Moon, a series of astonishing photographs by artist Susan Derges which hang alongside the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.
Meanwhile, Royal Museums Greenwich are running a series of talks, workshops and films designed to compliment The Moon.
Lectures will consider the Moon’s role as goddess, muse, timekeeper, spiritual icon and symbol of the human need to explore – and exploit – deep space. There will also be curator talks about the 180-plus items on show.
Films to be screened at either the NMM or Royal Observatory planetarium include last year’s First Man about the Apollo 11 landing, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar, the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon about NASA astronauts, Sam Rockwell’s 2009 star turn as a lone inhabitant in Moon, Ana Lily Amirpour’s haunting fable A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and finally Pumzi, a short 2009 movie about lunar mining.
At the observatory’s astronomy centre you can see Marvellous Moons, a look at other planetary satellites in our solar system. There will be a behind-the-scenes guide to the show as well.
Also at the observatory you can join astronomers as they point their fabulous 18-tonne telescope at our neighbour in An Evening with the Moon.
Many of the events running in tandem with the main exhibition are designed specially for children. They include To The Moon And Back, which features handicrafts and experiments, an activity day about what astronauts eat, a one-day workshop with Crazy Comic Club cartoonist James Parsons, an autumn festival in collaboration with local communities to reflect their cultural links to the Moon, regular Tuesday session of lunar stories, songs and games, a workshop on how to make traditional Malaysian moon-kites and a regular planetarium show called Moons Beyond Counting.
The Moon runs at the National Maritime Museum till January 5. Details at www.rmg.co.uk/moon50
Pictures: Royal Museums Greenwich/NASA