Ask A Curator

Ask A Curator

11/09/2017Written by Dan Kendall

Meet our curator, Dan Kendall, and ask him all your burning space artefact questions.

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mascot Telescope Right

Once a year the Twitterverse is awash with curators from museums big and small dealing with weird and wonderful queries – all in aid of social media champion Mar Dixon and her Ask a Curator day. And seeing as weird and wonderful is a curator’s staple diet, I thought that this year I must get involved with Ask a Curator day myself!

On 13 September 2017, I plan to be sitting in front of a computer, metaphorical pen in metaphorical hand, poised to answer your questions. All you need to do is tweet me on @spacecentre and include #AskACurator. Museums all over the world will be participating in @AskACurator. A bit daunting now I stop to think about it – so perhaps I need a trial run first?!

Behind the scenes in the Space Communications department!

What better way for me to test myself than to the seek out our Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre, Dr Tamela Maciel, and ask her:

“What are the top five things you’ve always wanted to ask me?”

I disregarded her first question, “why are you bothering me?!” – and chose to press on and answer her next five:

1. What’s your favourite object in the National Space Centre collection and why?

1. What’s your favourite object in the National Space Centre collection and why?
Gemini TTV-2 - Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
1. What’s your favourite object in the National Space Centre collection and why?
A privileged glimpse of the interior of Gemini TTV-2 - Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Ahhhhh!! The Impossible question first up. Like trying to decide between my kids – and I have done, it varies week-on-week, but there’s no way I’m disclosing the current results!

If you twist my arm though, then I guess I would have to say my favourite object is … the Gemini TTV-2. It’s not space-flown. We don’t own it – it is on loan to us from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was a nightmare to get into the building. And yet, I love this little-known piece of space history. You can find out more about it in another of my blogs – or by watching a video about putting it on display (thankfully without the lengthy email trail or the headache inducing planning meetings that proceeded its arrival).

Also, I was once able to get inside it – for conservation and cleaning purposes, of course, you understand. Still, being inside such a dangerous contraption – one that was once flown by Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert – was an undoubted thrill and probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a real-life astronaut.

2. What’s a day in the life of a curator like for you?

2. What’s a day in the life of a curator like for you?
Hannah 'in action', carrying out some artefact photography

The best thing about my job is that the days are never typical. I have plans for what I want to do on any given day … and then something comes up and completely derails me. But I enjoy that and see it as a challenge. When work colleagues or people from outside the Centre get in touch with me, it is normally to discuss interesting things or to offer me opportunities to work on exciting projects – so being derailed is almost always a good thing. The challenge is to stay focussed, as there is quite a bit of ‘plate-spinning’ going on. My job is to care for and research our internationally significant artefact collection, but also to collaborate with the Exhibition Manager on new exhibitions, interpretation, and display. Therefore, I’m fortunate to get involved with a lot of interesting stuff.

Any given day in my life as a curator might be unpredictable, but there are two certainties. The first is that I always require help from Hannah, our wonderful Collections Officer who works with me. I say works ‘with’ me instead of works ‘for’ me – because she keeps me in check and often knows far more than I do! The second is tea. No curator can survive for a whole day at work without a cup of tea. If anybody reading this is interested in working in museums, then this is an important lesson to learn. A tealess curator can lead to all sorts of problems.

3. Funniest or most bizarre moment on the job?

3. Funniest or most bizarre moment on the job?
Behind the scenes obligatory selfie

Perhaps not funny, but pigeons can provide the odd bizarre moment. If they get into the building (which occasionally they do) they seem to enjoy flying right to the top of the Rocket Tower – right above some of our most important artefacts! Desperately trying to pigeon-whisper them away to safety is not something I thought I would be doing for a living.

Equally, being filmed ‘unboxing’ new artefacts for a YouTube video feels like an odd way to get paid. But I’m reliably informed that people much younger than me enjoy a good unboxing video. We have one coming soon, so watch this space!

The opportunity to do the occasional TV and Radio interview has also sated my need for attention, which is nice – but something I still find quite bizarre. Talking meteorites over the phone with Irish radio station Newstalk, or space food with BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet have been highlights for me, albeit slightly surreal ones!

4. What’s the biggest challenge as Curator at the National Space Centre?

4. What’s the biggest challenge as Curator at the National Space Centre?
Big and small. Our Blue Streak rocket and Moon Rock both give me sleepless nights!

Probably not thinking too much about the responsibility of caring for all of our incredible objects. I really want to ensure that through preventive conservation we can make sure they last long after I am gone – both from this job and also this planet! – so that future generations can continue to enjoy them.

If I think about the number and significance of some of these objects too much though, I inevitably end up waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

5. What five objects shouldn’t be missed on a visit to the National Space Centre?

5. What five objects shouldn’t be missed on a visit to the National Space Centre?
Helen Sharman's launch seat and training spacesuit
5. What five objects shouldn’t be missed on a visit to the National Space Centre?
The armband with incredible array of signatures

Gemini TTV-2 and our Soyuz spacecraft are right next to each other in our Entrance Hall and are unmissable in two senses of the word – so let’s cheat and count them as one!

After that, if I only had a short while to explore the Centre, I’d recommend seeing our Moon rock, Helen Sharman’s launch seat, and our famous space toilet. I make that four(ish) items in total – so my final stop would be to see the red authorised personnel armband worn by a member of ground crew during Valentina Tereshkova’s historic Vostok 6 flight.

The unknown person who wore it managed to get some of the most significant people in the history of spaceflight to sign it afterwards, including Tereshkova, Yuri Gagarin and even Sergei Korolev.

Korolev was the brains behind the early Soviet space programme, unknown by the outside world until his identity was revealed after his death. His signature is rare and very special to me.

I’m getting into the swing of it now, so please send some questions on #AskaCurator day to @spacecentre for me!

About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.