Leicester Space Centre – Shock or Inspire?

Yesterday I visited the Leicester Space Centre for the first time. The outing was arranged as part of the Y-Heritage project, where a group of young people get to visit different arts and heritage places. Despite heavy rain for most of the day, it was good to be out and about. We started in the morning at Leicester Museum on New Walk, with a session of art appreciation in the Victorian Gallery.

We were asked to pick out a single picture and say something about it. I chose a picture from around 1400 of St John the Baptist preparing to enter the wilderness. It was the earliest image in the gallery, and stood out to me because it was from a period before the adoption of modern Western naturalism and realism. It’s a somewhat two-dimensional image, with St John depicted with a halo and a golden fleece wrapped around him.

While the majority of the images in the gallery were representational, in the modern sense, this was a symbolic depiction. Many of the images in the gallery are the equivalent of Victorian melodrama, showing battle scenes, romantic landscapes or scenes of moral virtue. Many are aesthetically pleasing, as is befitting of a municipal art collection, but many are simply crude displays of wealth and power which don’t have much of an appeal other than as a status symbol!

In the afternoon, we had a few hours at the Space Centre. It’s a stimulating place. More stimulating that I would normally hope for. Hundreds of school children on a visit to take in the principles and topics associated with cosmological investigation. It is load, and a bombardment of the senses. What was interesting was seeing the development of the rockets, and the engineering that was associated with the technology, was fascinating. By today’s standards the material used, the construction techniques and the design fit with the people who had to operate the systems, really shows how things have changed.

The galleries associated with the American and Soviet space race depicted the popular culture of the day, in a linear timeline of events. It’s interesting that we organise innovation retrospectively this way, as if fashion and popular culture have anything to do with paradigm shifts in physics or cosmology! It does help to figure out how world-views change. The use of statutes to carry television signals have changed both our material and our cultural understanding of the world.

I didn’t enjoy the film that we watched in the planetarium. Rather than showing a journey through the cosmos with stars, comets and planets, we had to watch a turgid and preachy film about ecology. Even for school children, this was patronising and heavy-handed. No wonder so many young people are anxious. Perhaps it would be better to depict the wonder of the world, and then discuss how we mitigate the harm that humans cause, before we bombard people and send them into a stupor.

It might just be me, but we get a greater sense of the value of our world by listening to poets and looking at the work of artists, than watching ‘edutainment’ films that leave us terrified that we are facing imminent collapse!  Afterwards, I strolled home along the River Soar and Grand Union Canal. It had stopped raining. The sodden leaves on the floor contrasted with the pearl-blue sky at dusk, and the swans and geese made their end-of-day journey along the river to their harbour for the night.

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