In the middle of October, as climate change activists carried out dramatic protests across London, including at museums, I queued up at the Science Museum to leave this blue marble and voyage to other worlds in pursuit of the dreams of science fiction. The irony that the exhibition began with a spaceport lobby looking very like an airline departure lounge, with all the implications of planet-heating emissions, was not lost on me.
The Science Museum’s autumn blockbuster Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination exhibition is as much a guided experience as an exhibition.
It begins with a friendly AI called Alann, whose quest to better understand the nature of humanity involves whisking you off to an orbiting research vessel. There, a stellar assemblage of art, objects and movie props will better help Alann (and you) understand the role human imagination plays in scientific progress.
Fly me to the moon
After boarding the departure shuttle and being introduced to Alann, you step off and into the first gallery to consider our urge to explore the universe. Here, what becomes a relentless juxtaposition of science fiction movie props and scientific objects begins with Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 spacesuit sandwiched between replicas of spacesuits from Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine and Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Alien.
There’s a replica of TV-hit Star Trek’s original USS Enterprise, and a full-size Dalek – but no sofa to hide behind – from the BBC’s Doctor Who series. The vintage of the cultural references notwithstanding, this is an all-ages friendly exploration of the history of the sci-fi genre.
From the Exploration Deck you move into the Bio Lab, which is concerned with how science fiction has inspired scientists working with human life and real bodies. Influencer and amputee Tilly Lockey talks movingly on-screen about her prosthetic arms and identifying as a cyborg. An interactive quizzes you about how much of a cyborg you might actually be yourself with your glasses and medicines, and a poster for the dystopian eugenics movie Gattaca sits uneasily alongside a contemporary piece of Crispr gene-editing equipment.
From the Bio Lab, you pass through a fast-travel “jump gate” leading you to a “wormhole” – a circular room with a dome projection suggesting some kind of swirling collective consciousness coalescing in space.
The exhibition has been artfully designed by the award-winning studio Framestore, with attention to detail extending to the creation of an entire new alien language.
However, if the Science Museum’s ambition is to offer an immersive experience on a par with others in London (say, the Jurassic World experience at Excel) and with a ticket price (£20 per adult) to match, it’s here in these swirls that the sense of immersion feels weakest.
In contrast, access provision is reasonable, with level access for wheelchair users, large print guides and subtitles on all the screen-based media, though there’s no audio described or British Sign Language content.
The Computer Core leads to the final Visualisation Deck, with playful nods to fictional AI, such as the 2001 movie HAL. Alann begins glitching as they wrestle with the final, and hardest question about humanity: do we possess the imagination to save our own planet?
A metal urn warped by the heat of the atomic blast at Hiroshima and a Godzilla poster represent the nuclear threat, but the final boss is of course climate change. Wanuri Kahiu’s short Afrofuturist film Pumzi explores a water-scarce east African community surrounded by ecological devastation, and Elizabeth LaPensée’s video game Thunderbird Strike brings Native American mythology to bear against the oil industry’s despoliation of Indigenous land.
Nearing the end of your journey, you hear climate scientist Hannah Cloke pay tribute to the “powerful tool” of the imagination in translating data into action. At this point I briefly wondered what leap of the imagination it would take for the Science Museum to drop its fossil fuel sponsorship.
Finally, you pass into the Observation Deck: from the imaginary spaceship, looking down on an all-too-real earth, our only home, in all its blue and cloudy glory. Alann’s question about what we will do with our collective future hangs there in space with us.
This moment of reflection comes as more of a relief than expected. This is quite a claustrophobic exhibition, with a lot of deliberate atmosphere in the form of background noise and moody purple lighting – even your neurotypical reviewer felt the surge of sensory overload.
But it’s not only the linear progression through a series of rooms and the frequent interventions of Alann that make this show feel constrained. Its vision of science fiction itself feels yoked to quite a narrow and linear view of scientific progress: imagination powering achievement, with little thought for the ethical or political consequences.
Separating fact from fiction
The exhibition contains quite a few works by artists that consider the themes and ideas of science fiction. Often in a show like this, the art brings a respite, a space to reflect on the other content. Larry Achiampong’s Relic Traveller, for example, is a multi-disciplinary series of works that reverse the colonial terms implicit in the “exploration” of space, bringing necessary perspective to the history of white men in white spacesuits.
But in the Science Fiction exhibition, a flag and suit from the series sit uncomfortably in a corridor between sections. They just don’t have room to breathe, or to let a visitor consider the critique that they offer.
Similarly, Black artists have contributed volumes to our understanding of cyborgs and human-robot bodies. Two album covers by singer, rapper and actor Janelle Monáe, and a visionary painting by self-taught Congolese artist Monsengo Shula are here to illustrate that, but again they feel hemmed in by the display. Given more space, they might prompt reflection on the more orthodox representations of human-robot hybridity.
Ultimately, though, it’s science fiction itself that needs to be unleashed. Losing ourselves in other worlds is a supremely valuable human activity, whether alone with a book, or with others in a cinema or gallery.
But the imaginative flights that it inspires can’t be limited only to provoking the progress of “real” science. As a society we need to be able to question where geo-engineering or gene editing might actually take us, and who benefits.
The Science Fiction exhibition doesn’t give the fiction enough space to help us think better about the science.