Science Diplomacy on Display

Maria Rentetzi and Donatella Germanese

In the middle of the summer of 1959 a string of limousines pulled up in front of the Coliseum, New York City’s newly designed convention center in Manhattan. The first to step out was the U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, followed by Vice President Richard Nixon, Commerce Secretary Lewis Strauss, Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Mikhail A. Menshikov, and the U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Inside the Coliseum, Frol Romanovich Kozlov, First Deputy Premier of the U.S.S.R., waited to greet the president and his diplomatic entourage and present to them the Soviet National Exhibtion. A British Pathé newsreel of that day shows the warm handshaking of the two men, who were surrounded by journalists, photographers, and an excited crowd. Strongly associated with progress and the Soviet supremacy in space science, the Soviet exhibition in New York put on public display a replica of the Sputnik and a model of the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. The moment was historic. In his opening speech Kozlov was crystal clear: ‘Let us hope that the exchange of exhibitions, along with other measures to develop exchanges in the fields of science, culture and art, will become yet another breath of the warm wind which is destined to melt the ice of prejudices and misconceptions that cloaks American-Soviet relations.

Despite the increasing interest in science exhibitions, there has been hardly any work on mobile science exhibitions and their role within science diplomacy. We explore atomic mobile exhibitions not only as cultural sites but as multifaceted strategic processes of transnational nuclear history. We move beyond the bipolar Cold War history that portrays propagandist science exhibitions as instances of a one-way communication employed to promote the virtues of the two major and conflicting political powers. Exhibitions play a vital role not only in the production of knowledge and the formation of political worldviews but also as assets in diplomatic negotiations and as promoters of a new worldview in which nuclear stands at the center. They are powerful iconic diplomatic devices, that is systems of representations that capture the diplomatic processes in action and make the nitty-gritty details of international relations visible. They move within political and scientific networks of exchange and knowledge flow; this is why mobility matters. They require important material investments and transform not only worldviews but also alternate local infrastructures.

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