Booming Fifties, Swinging Sixties. Exploring the British post-war popular culture of science

What was the popular culture of science like in Britain, in the fifties and sixties? The Science Museum has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to start exploring this question.

Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957

The 1950s and 1960s were years of technological expansion. In 1957, the space race started, with the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In 1969, the USA put humans on the Moon. In 1954 the European organisation for nuclear research, CERN, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, was established. And throughout the two decades, civil uses of nuclear energy were being developed.

 These decades of post-war reconstruction, of decolonization and independence, were also when the world population began to boom. Industrial agricultural technologies, such as pesticides and nitrogen based synthetic fertilizers, started to spread outside industrialized nations, as part of what was called the Green Revolution.

Richard Dimbleby from the BBC Panorama programme during a live broadcast from the Science Museum, on 14 May 1962, for the exhibition of the US Mercury Capsule, Friendship 7. (credit: Science Museum)

The project, compares how space exploration, nuclear physics, agro-chemistry, and the history of science were put on display in exhibitions at the Science Museum, and on television in BBC programmes. We are looking at how the Museum’s displays and television programmes were organised – what was shown, how it was shown, what decisions led to elements being included and others left out. For example the American Mercury space capsule Friendship 7 was displayed at the Science Museum in May 1962, and it was shown on Panorama, in the same week. Did the two media – museum and television – take the same approach to it? Or were they subtly different? Our project is finding out.

If you remember a visit to the Science Museum during the fifties or sixties, for instance to see the space capsule Freedom 7 in 1965, please feel free to send us an email at PublicHistory@sciencemuseum.org.uk.

The Intermedial Science project has been made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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