V&A Museum of Childhood: A space odyssey

From toys to comic strips, galactic exploration has left a starry mark on pop culture. Charlotte Cripps previews a new exhibition that's out of this world
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The Independent Culture

Long before the Space Age became a reality, writers, designers and film-makers were imagining a fantastic future where the machine reigned supreme and aliens roamed the galaxy. Now, the V&A Museum of Childhood is showing how space exploration influenced popular culture.

"Particularly back in the Sixties, when the space age was new and shiny, it really did insert itself in popular culture," says Dr Chris Welch, a lecturer in astronautics and space systems at Kingston University, and the museum's scientist in residence.

"At this time, the cultural outlook was very positive. People believed that technology was going to lead to a brighter future. It was reflected by artists and designers. Now space is so deeply imbedded in our everyday lives that in many cases we are just not aware of it."

Among the 300 items on display are lunar wallpaper designed by Michael Clarke in 1964, Japanese tin robots, flying saucers, rockets and moon explorers from the Fifties and Sixties, a JVC Videosphere television shaped like an astronaut's helmet, and a film poster of Fritz Lang's 1929 sci-fi silent film Frau im Mond.

The collection does not just comprise consumer goods. From actual space missions come a piece of a Mars meteorite, a space suit worn by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko, a space "nappy" and a packet of Nasa space food. And it took the technological advances of the space race to produce objects such as "Eagle Eyes" sunglasses, solar-panelled toys and solar chargers for use on an iPod or mobile phone.

Designers were quick to adopt the futuristic aesthetic of the Space Age. As early as 1939, a radio made for the New York World's Fair incorporated the exhibition's Trylon and Perisphere buildings. From 1947 comes a chrome Emor Globe radio, and, 20 years later, the Finnish designer Eero Aarnio's made the most of the modern materials with his bright-yellow plastic Pastilli Chair. Fashion found inspiration in the era, too, from the ultra-modern designs of André Courrèges to a futuristic gold minidress designed by Leonard Joseph in New York in 1965.

The lead curator for the Space Age exhibition, Esther Lutman, trawled through the museum's collection for childhood objects influenced by space. Among the gems the toy expert discovered were around 120 pieces of original Star Wars merchandise, a sky-blue tin toy space gun from the Fifties, an educational board game, Pleasures of Astronomy, made in 1825, and Urania's Mirror, a pack of cards from the same year that was used to teach children about the constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. "Each card has holes to represent the stars," Lutman explains. "When held to the light you can see the constellation shine through."

Space exploration has a long history in literature, and among the books that will go on show are early editions of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870). "He was a pioneer of the science fiction genre and wrote of space travel before it was thought possible," says Lutman. "From the Earth to the Moon inspired pioneers of space travel such as Robert Goddard, the inventor of modern rocketry. We'd never have gone into space had we not fantasised about it."

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