An Exhibition about Looking to the Past to think about the Future
This week, the virtual exhibition Writing Futures, which I curated in partnership with the National Museum of Iceland and the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, went live. This exhibition explores a novel use of the Middle Ages in contemporary culture in the naming of worlds in our solar system.
In 50 years of space history, more than 7,000 names have been assigned to mountains, volcanoes, craters, and other features on planets and moons in our solar system. These names, assigned by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), are used by planetary scientists in their post-mission analysis of images from space probes, orbiters, and landers. These names help us to think about distant planets not simply as astronomical data – as faraway formations of rock and ice – but as worlds.
A surprising number of these names have been drawn from medieval European literatures. Saturn's moon Mimas, for example, takes its names from Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (c. 1470), while Jupiter's Io, the most volcanically active world in our solar system, takes a handful of its names from Dante's Inferno. Jupiter's moon Callisto has nearly 100 names derived from Old Norse myth, the largest among them the massive Valhalla structure, an impact crater with a diameter of around 3000 kilometers.
The exhibition is a kind of Medievalist’s Guide to the Galaxy - a guided tour through the solar system equipped with a small library of medieval texts, from the Icelandic Poetic Edda to the French Le Chanson de Roland. It contains upwards of 60 items, including images from NASA’s photographic archives, medieval manuscripts, and artefacts from our collections at both the National Museum of Iceland and the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle. The exhibition works by juxtaposing these items to explore how past and future come together in aspects of planetary place-making. It uses digital annotation tools to layer both medieval manuscripts and photomosaic maps of planetary surfaces with information about planetary scientists' engagement with works of medieval literature, and, in bringing them together, tell stories from the Middle Ages in an entirely new medium.
While its ostensible focus is on storytelling, the exhibition's subtler aim is to engage the broader frame of cultural and ethical implications that planetary naming entails. Saturn's moon Iapetus – distinguishing lighter areas from dark – troublingly appropriates its names from the 11th-century Le Chanson de Roland, twinning the moon's striking colour dualism with the racialised distinction between Muslims and Christians. It also shows that the medieval literatures being drawn upon by planetary scientists are the same as those used by European intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to write their regional and national histories. The exhibition, by degrees, tasks us with thinking about why we use the past to think about the future, and why medieval imagery, in particular, plays such a big role in planetary place-making.
I've been thinking about these meetings of past and future for a while now, and can trace my interest in both to a tweet that appeared in 2016. In February of that year, the British astronaut Tim Peake tweeted a picture from aboard the International Space Station (ISS) captioned ‘a copy of one of the oldest maps in Britain, now exploring the newest frontier here in space’, holding a facsimile of the English Hereford map (c.1300) against the space station window. At the time, I happened to be writing a book on medieval maps, and was inspired to write this piece about about the little-known medieval history of looking at the Earth from space.
It was a good while later, however, that I noticed the other historical point of reference hidden in Peake's tweet. Space is often called the new frontier, a turn of phrase so ordinary that we can easily forget its association with a period of American history. The 'new frontier', Pioneer, and Viking all look back to historical narratives to conceptualise the human presence in space. Since Peake's tweet, I've noticed dozens of medievalisms in space news: from the NASA CubeSat named Dellingr, after an Old Norse god of the dawn, to the TNO (transneptunian object) for a short while named Ultima Thule, a medieval name for Iceland. This exhibition has developed at least in part as an attempt to think through these conceptual maneuvers.
We might look up to space expecting to see visions of humanity's future. But with its multitudes of knights, companies of dwarfs, dragon-slaying heroes, and Viking halls, our solar system might better resemble its past.
I hope people find this exhibition thought provoking, and come away from it with a new alertness about how we think about the future in the way we do.