Lois Rosson studies American science institutions in the 20th-century, NASA, space and popular culture, astronomical illustration, and photography. At the time of this interview, she was a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate.
Hello! Could you tell us a bit about your dissertation, and especially the part you worked on as Guggenheim Predoctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum?
The project looks at how astronomical illustration responded to the onset of the Space Race in the United States. I argue that while these images were often circulated as a type of scientific visualization, they reflected cultural interpretations of space as a type of terrestrial frontier. So, it’s both a study of how the symbolic importance of American landscapes influenced what outer space looked like in mid-twentieth century, and a look at how handmade illustrations come to circulate in an authoritative scientific capacity.
The Air and Space Museum is just as much a relic of the Space Age as the objects it houses. While I was there, I looked at the various types of artwork in its collection, and also correspondence between curators trying to make sense of how accessioned objects related to the history they were attempting to narrate. I spent the bulk of my time at the museum looking at papers related to the career of Chesley Bonestell, an artist billed as America’s foremost astronomical illustrator for much of the 1950s. There were lots of his illustrations in the collection, and they posed an interesting categorical challenge: his work was undoubtedly significant, but it straddled a confusing line between “art object” and “object of science.” By the time the museum opened in 1976, one of Bonestell’s paintings of the Moon was left in storage because of concerns museum-goers would mistake it for an institutionally-sanctioned view of the lunar surface.
How did you manage to land (this is an artful moon pun) this fellowship? Would you suggest anything to other historians thinking about research fellowships like this?
I would absolutely recommend this type of fellowship to other historians, even those who aren’t necessarily interested in public history. The Smithsonian has an extremely large and diverse collection of objects, and a lot of the museums maintain archival material related to their respective research areas. I mostly stuck to the Air and Space Museum’s collections, but did also occasionally venture out to the Archives of American Art.
I found out about the Smithsonian’s various fellowship programs at the History of Science Society meeting my first year of grad school. That’s probably the most emphatic piece of advice I have for new students—go to whichever professional society meeting is closest to your interests! I found out about all sorts of different fellowship opportunities this way, and had the added benefit of interacting with conference attendees from fellowship-granting institutions.
Museums certainly aren't the most common place for Ph.D. students to spend their research year. What was especially meaningful or productive about doing research with materials in that space (this is the second and hopefully final pun)?
The National Air and Space Museum is the most popular museum on the mall, and consistently ties with the Louvre for most yearly foot traffic. The Space History Division—which is where I was posted up—is staffed pretty exclusively by trained historians of science. It was really fascinating to see how the historiography I’ve been immersed in for the last few years can translate to physical exhibition design. The visibility is also very heartening; museums have a tangible impact on how people outside of our discipline engage with historical narratives.
What did you learn from working in a community of public historians?
It’s work that comes with a high degree of responsibility! Popular exhibitions can really influence how non-historians view a particular historical subject. Exhibition design is really about telling a coherent story, which is arguably the hardest part of producing history period. There’s a delicate balance between narrative intelligibility and academic historiography. Plus, you have to account for the physical limitations of the objects in the collection.
Really this was one of the most interesting things I discovered while at the Smithsonian—there’s a robust body of literature around these questions. Museum studies doesn’t seem to be as popular with historians in our department, but it grapples with a lot of questions that are certainly relevant to our discipline. Museums are themselves a kind of historical artifact.
Your research there coincided with the 50th anniversaryof the Apollo 11 landing. What is it like to know a lot about a historical question that captures broader public attention? What role do you think historians can or should play when their research intersects with front-page news?
Yes! If anything, the Apollo anniversary was a reminder of how important historical scholarship actually is. The moon landing is a prime example of the instability of an event’s meaning in public memory. In 2019, Apollo was used as a stand-in for nostalgia about the simplicity of American life in the mid-twentieth century. Lots of emphasis on how it represented an America that could work together to achieve true greatness, that sort of thing.
It was good to have experts around to point out that 1969 was actually one of the most politically turbulent years in American history, and that the Apollo program was never as universally popular as memory might now suggest.
Based on your experience, would you offer current Ph.D. students any particular advice as they approach their research year?
Be open to investigating things that might seem only tangentially related to your topic! It’s really truly a remarkable privilege to have a year of funding to sit around and learn stuff. Once, while I was on research, I spent two weeks reading about photorealist painting in the 1980s for seemingly no reason. But! It eventually helped me better formulate a set of questions about pictorial realism I was working through in the dissertation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was inadvertently beefing up my conceptual vocabulary, and it’s a topic I still occasionally return to.