The moon is not a star in the sky, but right now, it is the star in museum exhibits around the world.
This week, earthlings will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first man to land on the moon. In a variety of ways, they will remember where they were on July 20, 1969, when man’s fascination with going to the moon became a reality.
The National Air and Space Museum will celebrate that event with a five-day festival with news reels and feature films. Exhibit highlights will include Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit on display for the first time in 13 years.
Perhaps the ultimate light show will be the Smithsonian’s projection of a 363-foot Saturn V rocket on the east side of the Washington Monument and a special “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon” show, including a 40-foot-wide re-creation of the famous Kennedy Space Center countdown clock.
Galleries in Paris, Zurich, Norway, Toronto, London and Bern, Switzerland, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are displaying not only the photographs of the event but how artists have created works about the moon. The variety of objects featured range from rare 17th-century drawings by Galileo to illustrations for popular books to works by contemporary artists.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington takes a different perspective with its exhibit “By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs.”
The 50 works show how the moon has been recorded through photography in three time periods roughly 50 years apart.
The oldest works dating from the mid-19th century were not created by professional photographers but by astronomers who used photography in their research. Warren De La Rue, a pioneer in this field, created what is considered the first lucid lunar photographs with works like “Full Moon,” 1858–1859, a stereoscopic glass transparency, printed in 1862. Lewis M. Rutherfurd improved a telescopic lens that allowed for rays of the light spectrum more sensitive to photographic chemicals than humans could see, to create clearer albumen prints like “Photographie de la lune a son 1er Quartier (Photograph of the Moon in Its First Phase),” March 6, 1865. These historic works are scientific as well as artistic treasures.
At the end of the 19th century, at the Paris Observatory, director Maurice Loewy and lunar geologist Pierre Henri Puiseux would photograph the moon on clear nights toward what would become the start of a photographic lunar atlas. Charles Le Morvan continued their work to systematically map the moon’s entire visible surface. Almost half of the images in this exhibit are from Le Morvan’s “Photographic and Systematic Chart of the Moon,” published in 1914.
About 100 years after these historic works are the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s photographs. What distinguishes them from the rest of the exhibit is that these were taken on the lunar surface itself not at a distance of over 238,000 miles, like the earlier astronomers photographing from Earth.
The exhibit includes selections from three types of missions to gather crucial information for the planned manned mission. “Ranger IX, A-16,” 1965, is a gelatin silver print, an example of one of 5,814 images transmitted to provide NASA with information about its flight path. “Day 320, Survey I, Sectors 3 and 4” are 78 gelatin silver prints, assembled to gather information on the surface of the moon from missions between 1966 and 1968, which provided 29,952 photographic stills in two weeks. The final Lunar Orbiter missions were able to produce, process and scan the photographs and transmit back to Earth, one strip at at time, as in the three taped gelatin silver prints in “Lunar Orbiter, Medium Resolution, LO V-24 M-099,” 1967.
All this would lead up to the day in July 1969, when the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would arrive and take amazing photos like “Surface of the Moon,” July 1969. A visitor to the exhibit can look through a viewer at these stereoscopic glass transparency slides of the 3-inch-square areas of the moon for a three-dimensional effect.
To add to the excitement of this event, there was live footage viewed by an estimated 500 million people on television. Man on the moon was no longer an imagined fantasy or a hoped for event, but a historical fact.
A walk through the National Gallery of Art is well worth it after this exhibit to consider the moon in art like the “Companion of Diana,” a marble sculpture of the goddess of the moon, or in nocturne paintings like Aert van der Neer’s “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge.” But whether looking at the moon in nearby gallery images or far away in the night sky, its inspiration is the stuff that dreams are made of, a symbol of hope toward reaching the unreachable—which after all was not an impossible dream.