Jennifer Levasseur (BA 1999) is one of only a handful of spaceflight curators around the world. Her book, Through Astronaut Eyes: Photography from Early Human Spaceflight (Purdue University Press, 2020), explores the origins and impact of astronaut still photography during the height of the Space Race, 1962 to 1972. History staffer Elizabeth Collins talked with Levasseur to learn more about her work and the role public historians play as educators in an ever-changing social landscape. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you decide to major in History?
I had always believed that my career path was business. But if you are thinking you’re supposed to be one thing, the world and the universe can to tell you that you are wrong. I took Econ 101 the end of my freshman year and I failed, it was terrible. After a similar disaster with what is now Accounting 300, I immediately made sure I had history classes in the spring—that I was taking courses that really meant something to me. I had always been interested in history. My family grew up in Southeast Michigan, and I had gone to the Henry Ford Museum repeatedly as a child, and so I knew that I had this deep interest in the subject matter and I was passionate about it. What that meant for the future, I didn’t know. But, what I like to tell students is: Don’t be afraid to not know something. Don’t be afraid to wait for the right moment and that inspiration to come.
You earned your PhD from George Mason. Why did you pursue a doctorate?
What compelled me to do the PhD was the job. For Smithsonian employees, you can be a museum specialist, work on objects, do all kinds of cool stuff, but you can’t have the title, and be that expert person the public comes to when they want to know about a specific artifact unless you have a PhD. There is something unique about the opportunity to be one of three or four space shuttle curators in the entire country, in fact the entire world.
What is it like to work as a curator?
Working in a museum and in public history is a passion. It is not something one does lightly, because you’re not going to become very famous from it, and you’re definitely not going to earn a lot of money. As a curator, I want tell people about history through objects. Why do we collect artifacts? Why do we save things? As somebody who has saved things throughout their life, I understood that intimately.
We then have to find access points for each of our audiences. You have to be willing to not think about your self-interest and your expertise so much as what you think that person should take away from being in the museum. We hate to have to do it—it’s the worst part of my job—but boiling something down into 50 words on an exhibit script is necessary, when I really want to tell you everything!
I also work as part of a team. Although I understand the roles of professors and how they work as an educational team, my team is much different in that it’s comprised of educators, designers, and media specialists. I still have my research, I still have to do my books and my articles, but I very much am embedded and in love with the other part of the job, which is about public outreach and doing the exhibits and working with the artifacts.
How is the museum responding to the changing social landscape?
One big goal we have is to make everybody feel like they are a part of the story. If we’re going to talk about the story of human spaceflight, and you are eleven and you have the passion for physics or science or the planet Jupiter, there is a path for you to become involved in answering big questions about our universe.
We want every young person to come into a room and feel like they can identify with one of the historical subjects in that space. We’re doing that more and more through the narratives—through personal narratives especially. So we tell the stories of the African American engineers down at the Marshall Space Flight Center who helped develop the Saturn V, or the women who worked out at Jet Propulsion Laboratory as some of the first computers who were involved in programming some of the probes that go out to the outer solar system. Or the women engineers who were down at Langley who helped John Glenn on his flight. The expectation is that we will have considered diversity as part and parcel of every single story we tell.
Museum interpretation is also more of a conversation than it used to be. We want to have a dialogue. We want it to be interactive.
Have museums had to step up in their roles as educators?
Museum outreach, in terms of the digital component, is not new. We film lots of programs, we interview astronauts and others—we have been building a catalogue of material. But the pandemic has made me realize how we need to reanalyze, reorient our goals in terms of how we educate our young people.
It’s quite inspiring how museums have gotten together and had conversations about this. It’s not just about working in isolation, it’s really about sharing and making sure that we do it right for our visitors and that we don’t further endanger anyone by not cleaning a railing in front of an object or not putting public safety at the heart of our daily practices. We have a very peculiar environment. We have to worry about the care of our objects as well as the care of our visitors. Sometimes that actually competes with the other, and we have to figure out what’s the best way to do the right thing for both.
Tell me about your recent book.
In January 1986, I was watching the Space Shuttle Challenger launch with my 3rd grade classmates live on television, and I saw the first teacher in space die. I wanted to know why it happened and I didn't really have a way of asking. When I got to Michigan, I learned how to ask those questions, pealing back what was on the surface to understand how technology, management, and other components played a role in the disaster.
Thinking about how I remember spaceflight when I was growing up—how I connected deeply to the visual element—that made me think: If I can understand my generation through the experience of watching Space Shuttle launches on television, how can we understand my parents’ generation as shaped by their experience watching the Apollo lunar landings in the 1960s? How do they remember it? That developed into ideas about technology, visual culture, and how it is we connect to memory through photographs.
We all know that Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969, but what was the next thing he did? The next thing he did was take a picture. He knew that was his way to share what he saw.
Any memories of U-M you’d like to share?
Even as an undergraduate, I was challenged to think and ask questions about history. I had the great Sidney Fine as a professor back in the 1990s, and I absolutely loved his storytelling. His way of talking about history was so compelling. I owe a lot of the way that my historical thinking developed to my time in Michigan. Go Blue!