Museum Of The Moon

Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram at The Natural History Museum, 17 May 2019 – 1 January 2020.

The “Museum of the Moon” is about the moon in the same way Die Zauberflöte is about a magic flute; it both is and it fundamentally isn’t. Luke Jerram’s work of public art, a giant glowing sphere with an 120dpi detail map of the moon on it to at 1:500,000 scale, is currently set in a blue-tinged exhibition hall at London’s Natural History Museum. It is perhaps the visual equivalent of a Singspiel. It is the kind of thing jaded critics won’t admit to liking in public, in virtue of it being almost too eminently likable and popular.  Go to a party with say, the staff of The Paris Review, and say you love Die Zauberflöte or Jerram’s other recent piece, pianos set in public places with ‘play me’ signs.  Would to do so be committing a kind of public cultural-writerly seppuku akin to the happenings of a David Lodge novel?  Probably, but one would die having taken the correct, if unsatisfying, position: sometimes mass, people-pleasing things are good too.

Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram, 2019 (Photograph by the author)

In the sticky entrance hall of a place popular with small children on a warm Bank Holiday weekend, the idea of transcendent anything seems laughable at first. It begins with people asking the lobby staff on duty not for the exhibit by the name “Museum of the Moon” but instead asking by a kind of magical metonymy, where the moon is. The moon, a comfortably no-brow orbital entity, is still wherever it was last in its geocentric cycle.  But the people are not asking for our planetoid neighbour. They’re asking for the exhibition, which becomes a real moon, or some tangible stand in for it, in the process. The moon is down and to the left, in a space that is darkened and large enough for masses to stand under it and feel dwarfed. The moon is six metres in diameter.

Six- year-old Alex tells me he likes the moon because it is big. I can’t deny he’s right. The closeness of the thing hanging it seems, without support (its actually mounted on tiny wires invisible in the darkness), brings home its bigness. The moon is never this big, or this close, in the night sky. To me, it’s ridges and valleys not too far from the now centuries-old maps of Kircher, it has a certain baroque overmuchness that I like. It’s also a tribute to the Humboldtian wonder of scientific discovery, of course, but this is expressed in a suitably public way: the selfie. People take photos with their partners, toddlers run around and under screaming in awe and delight as their parents attempt to get their faces in the light, and multiple people pose both eating and holding up the sphere comically. The museum encourages people to hashtag their photos. Apparently, in the course of its display around the world, almost 3 million people have seen the moon. No one looks unhappy.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Design for the stage set of Mozart’s Magic Flute, 1815. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I lie on my back on the carpet. Three German schoolchildren talk amongst themselves, and I ask them, in German, if they think about the piece in English or German in their heads. They don’t even make fun of my bad accent when they tell me it’s German, of course, because the moon seems to speak everyone’s first language easily here. Jerram designed the piece to collaborate with other artists and artmakers, and in this generous spirit the Natural History Museum has invited a regular theatre performance and yoga nights. I can see the Queen of the Night suspended in front of it, like a bigger, more embraceable version of the classic Schinkel set for Die Zauberflöte, adorned with a similarly globular and entrancing web of stars.

The silver-blue glow of the exhibit hall renders the space bearable with far more people than would normally be possible. In the arcology that is London, this is no small feat, this ability to make almost a hundred feel alone enough with themselves to wonder. Like many other visitors, I avail myself of my headphones. The prams and small groups mill endlessly as if in a sort of gravitational field of the sphere’s making. Two teenagers kiss by the silver glow. The parrot man finds his parrot wife.  The night is not full of terrors but of discovery. As is well here—and it is indeed by a kind of post-Enlightenment zauber; neither magic, exactly, nor enchantment, but some in-articulable combination of the two with the idea of the infinitely engaging natural world. This moon looms close, friendly, and almost touchable, instead of remaining across the unreachable void of space.  Watching people interact with “Museum of the Moon” is perhaps the larger joy here. This is much a museum of the moon’s people as it is a museum of the moon itself– all of us, in our full, inalienable, crowded humanity.

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