The Future?

Through the names assigned to their features, remotely-detected lumps of rock and ice become worlds within human culture and experience. 

We might look up to space expecting to see visions of humanity's future. But with its multitudes of knights, companies of dwarfs, dragon-slaying heroes, and Viking halls, our solar system might better resemble its past.

Historical metaphors abound in how we think about space and its exploration. Space is sometimes called the new frontier, a turn of phrase so ordinary that we can easily forget its association with a period of American history, describing the westward spread of American settlers across the North American continent. The Viking program similarly looks back to a period of European oceanic expansion that began in the eighth century. These metaphors help make our universe a little more understandable, bringing unimaginably distant worlds, and the expanses between them, into the realm of human experience and culture. However, such metaphors bring with them a multitude of cultural and historical associations. If, on one level, the frontier conjures images of exploration, opportunity, and progress, on others it conveys the violent displacement of peoples and cultures, and the lasting and unresolved legacies of colonialisation. 

Planetary names derive overwhelmingly from European classical and medieval cultures. The stories planetary scientists draw upon to make the solar system feel more familiar are the very same stories that Scandinavian thinkers used centuries ago to write their regional and national histories. These same medieval stories continue to be used in place-making on other worlds in our solar system. The work of decolonising outer space, of drawing names from traditions and cultures more representative of who we are, is a new and exciting undertaking. As humanity increases its presence in space, it is more vital than ever that we think about the words we use and their histories.

If you have not explored them already, you can learn more about the reception of Norse antiquities in Writing Histories, which explores the awakening of interest in Icelandic literature from the seventeenth century. In the Paired Objects exhibition, we bring together items from the National Museum of Iceland and the Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle, to cast more light on aspects of reception history.