Art History Research Seminar: ‘Curating the Moon’ with Dr Melanie Vandenbrouck, Curator of Art at the Royal Museums Greenwich
In 2019, Dr Melanie Vandenbrouck, Curator of Art at the Royal Museums Greenwich, curated two major exhibitions, The Moon at the Royal Museums Greenwich and Moonlight at the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg. On the 4th March, we were fortunate enough to have Dr Vandenbrouck present to us at NCH on what it was like curating these exhibitions.
The exhibitions themselves dealt with our ‘emotional investment’ in the moon, as the closest and most visible object in the night sky. Dr Vandenbrouck wanted the Greenwich exhibition to convey that whilst the moon is no longer an unreachable entity, the same technological advances that have brought Earth’s natural satellite nearer to us may also have dimmed some of its appeal. Likewise, if for millennia, people have relied on the moon for such activities as harvest, timekeeping or rituals, in our increasingly floodlit world, our more personal understanding of the moon is at risk of being lost.
The exhibition at Greenwich comprised over 180 objects, spanning 2,500 years. From the earliest item, a Mesopotamian tablet from 172 BCE that showed how the lunar eclipses were considered bad omens, all the way to a papier-mâché space helmet made by an eight-year-old in 1969 according to Blue Peter’s instructions. The latter was a particular highlight for generations that remembered the ‘Space Race’ that began in 1955.
The exhibition also dealt with how artists have conveyed personal connections to the moon. William Blake’s 1793 etching I want! I want! concisely conveyed the thrill and anticipation of trying to reach the unreachable. Similarly, the work of contemporary artists such as Leonid Tishkov’s photo series Private Moon spoke to our intimate relationship with our ‘cosmic companion’.
Dr Vandenbrouck ended her talk by telling us about the emotional reactions of the crew members of Apollo 8, as they witnessed an ‘earthrise’ (the moment the Earth climbs over the Moon’s horizon) with human eyes for the first time on 24 December 1968. As Bill Anders, the astronaut who captured this in a famous photograph said, ‘We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.’ His Earthrise picture has been credited as kick- starting the environmental movement. Then and most poignantly now, Earthrise reinforces not only the beauty, but also the fragility of our planet. Stressing the severity of the present climate crisis, Dr Vandenbrouck concluded her lecture by asking us: ‘Fifty years on, what have we done?’