We Look to the Moon: Celebrating 50 Years Since the Moon Landings

It’s fifty years since Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and uttered the immortal words: ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Despite the passage of time, our fascination with the Moon hasn’t diminished – and our awe at the Apollo XI astronauts’ achievements remains as great as it was on that July day in 1969.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Bodleian has been running an exhibition in its Old Library called ‘We Look to the Moon’. Initiated by a multidisciplinary team led by curator Dr Karen Patricia Heath, a Senior Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, the exhibition draws on the Bodleian’s vast collection of Moon-related artefacts.

Dr Heath, who also teaches on the Department’s Weekly Class programme, said the vision for the exhibition was to create a display that was ‘somehow unexpected’. She explains: ‘Maybe you’d expect to see drawings by Galileo, but we wanted it to focus on different cultures and different disciplines. For instance, we have a medieval Arabic manuscript, and then at the other end of the spectrum we have a Moon globe from the 1960s that was made in Oxford.’

It meant that putting the exhibition together was a hugely collaborative effort, drawing on the expertise of not only the Bodleian’s curators, but also colleagues from the Department of Earth Sciences, the Department of Physics, and the Oxford Internet Institute’s Cabinet team.

Art in outer space

The exhibition has drawn a range of enthusiastic visitors. Particularly popular was the Lunar Activity Day held on Saturday 20 July, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, where visitors were able to handle real meteorites, learn about current lunar research at Oxford, and hear Moon stories from around the world. The focus was on family activities, says Dr Heath, with live lunar-themed music, art and science stalls, and a quiz for children with a printed certificate to say they had completed their mission.

There were also talks by Oxford academics in the Blackwell Hall on topics as diverse as the temperature of the Moon, and why there is art in outer space. These proved immensely popular, with over 4,000 visitors on that one day. 

So, what was Dr Heath’s favourite part of the exhibition? She finds it hard to commit (‘It’s like choosing your favourite cat’) but says she particularly liked the audio-visual element, which was a small clip of Le Voyage dans La Lune, a silent French adventure film from 1902 in which a group of astronauts travel to the Moon and meet its inhabitants. She also particularly enjoyed seeing how people responded to the interactive elements: ‘Going in on the first day when it had been set out was really fascinating. Different people were attracted to different aspects of the display first, and it was just great to see them engaging with it.’

Without the Moon, we probably wouldn’t be here

The Moon seems to occupy a special place in our imaginations, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the display has proved popular.

Why does Dr Heath think the Moon has such a hold on us? ‘If we didn’t have the Moon, we almost certainly wouldn’t be here,’ she says. ‘Without the Moon, there would be no tides, which are thought to have played a major role in the evolution of life on Earth.’

At the same time, she says, the Moon has been ‘pervasive throughout human culture. It’s something so beautiful but we kind of take it for granted.’

There’s something uniquely compelling about the Moon – and we all respond to it in our own way. Visitors to the exhibition were asked, ‘What does the Moon mean to you?’ and were invited to write their answers on Post-it notes, which were then put on display. ‘Some of the cutest things were things like, “When I grow up I want to be a NASA physicist,”’ says Dr. Heath.  ‘Some of it was very specific – things like, “I’d like to be the first girl who walks on the Moon.”’

The exhibition finished on Sunday 15 September but for those who didn't make it, and for those who want to discover more, there is an accompanying website that offers a deeper analysis of the objects on display. Also, Dr Heath is editing a special journal issue to be published next year that draws on certain talks from the activity day.

Published 11 September 2019