LEGO builds the spaceships of the future

For some, the concept of “astroculture” – which this blog deals with – may seem a bit far out. Cultural phenomena that express man’s relationship to the sky, stars, outer space – how relevant is that? Is it perhaps not more important to build rockets and get out there? Or conversely, scrap them and then concentrate on saving the Earth?

On the edge

If the study of astroculture may seem a little fringe, what about children’s toys? Childhood Studies and the study of children's material culture are areas that are gaining more and more acceptance around universities. But it is rarely dealt with in areas not already in one way or another engaged in studying children and childhood.

For instance, I managed to study religion at the University of Copenhagen in a great many years without even once having to relate to children’s material culture. Child psychology came up a few times, but mainly as a basis for understanding the adult psyche. Yet, it could have been quite interesting to learn something about how children and religion interact and how this may find expression in material objects.

The study of toys

Whereas children's psychology and cognitive abilities have a relatively high status in the academic world as objects of study, and are drawn into many different fields, the same cannot be said to be the case for children's material culture, and certainly not in the form of toys. This is perhaps not so strange. To a large extent toys belong to the sphere of popular culture and this has in itself only slowly been accepted as a serious object of study.

Again using my own profession, the history of religions, as an example, until not so many years ago I could still encounter skepticism about science fiction as an object of academic study. There could hardly be any "real" religion in fiction and certainly not in trivial literature, right?

So if the study of toys are is not exactly on universities’ top-ten list of topics that give status to those who study them, it is not so strange. Toys belong to an area which – in most cases – people as adults have long since left behind. Because they lost interest in it, because it was, well, childish, and anyway not important. Actually, it may often be with the toy manufacturers themselves, that one might find a really serious interest in the subject.

The cultural history of outer space

So if you combine astroculture and toys, you can be pretty sure that your subject will provoke crooked smiles and skeptical glances. But the issue is actually not that farfetched after all. Granted, it may be far out compared to what it is most usual to deal with. But not in terms of relevance.

“Astroculture” is simply culture; cultural expressions that have a history that is worth studying in the same way as any other culture is worth studying (if you think so). But it’s still a little unusual to think that the outer space of today also has a cultural history. Roughly speaking, present-day outer space is mainly connected with things like satellites, space shuttles, the Hubble telescope, and the Big Bang, or, on the imaginary side, Luke Skywalker, UFOs, Flash Gordon, the spaceship Enterprise, and so on.

In the first case “culture” is, to most people, just not relevant. Science is science, culture is culture. And if the two finally meet, it is because culture stands in the way of science. In the second case, it is doubtful whether it is true culture worth studying. In many places, it has been accepted as a serious topic and is then called “popular culture.”

Children’s astroculture

But supposing that astroculture is a topic worth studying, then children’s space toys must also be a relevant field of study. How does space toys reflect the surrounding cultural horizon and historical epoch? What can they tell us about how we project ourselves into the depths of space? What does space toys show us about what effects the hopes and expectations of the adults that produced and bought it them had on their children? And have the toys influenced children's views of what outer space is?

The topic – children's astroculture in the form of space toys – raises some interesting questions. If answers can be found, they will be a relevant contribution not only to the study of astroculture but also to the study of children's material (popular) culture. And those making the toys may even gain insight into the cultural history of their products and thus some of the processes that affect product development.

LEGO in space

If you say “space” and “toys,” you also have to say “LEGO.” Since 1978, the LEGO Group have produced themes within the LEGO system that takes place in space. What is now called “LEGO Classic Space” ran from 1978 to 1987 and an entire cult of adult fans has emerged around it (it is the logo for this first series that illustrates this post). Then came other space themes, such as Blacktron, Space Police, Ice Planet, Exploriens, Insectoids, Mars Mission – and today LEGO City Space and Alien Conquest exist in parallel.

The LEGO Group’s own space themes have only been interrupted between approximately 2001 and 2007 by the Star Wars theme, which the LEGO Group bought the rights to. And just as science fiction – whether in the form of comics, movies, or books – may be an important source for the study of social and cultural history, so can LEGO’s space themes.

The spaceships of progress

Progress, technology, and a promising future haves always been part of LEGO’s brand identity. It is therefore no wonder that the future in space was among the first genre themes that the LEGO Group embraced.

The first classic space theme was an instant success and to this day stands out with an aesthetics that makes it seem not particularly outdated. Something that, paradoxically enough, is extremely difficult to achieve within genres dealing with the future.

LEGO bricks is a so-called “construction toy” and the LEGO Group has, since it introduced the bricks, had a strong focus on the toys’ educational potential, with a special eye for its ability to generate interest in science, technology, and engineering in children.

It’s no wonder then that LEGO in the last 30 years has been building the spacecraft of the future and at the same time has created a grandiose and complex astrocultural universe, just waiting to be taken seriously as historical source material.

Thore Bjørnvig (2012). "LEGO og det ydre rum" in Weekendavisen, Kultur, 24 February: 10.

Claudia Mitchell og Jacqueline Reid-Walsh (2010 [2002]). Researching Children’s Popular Culture: The Cultural Spaces of Childhood, London og New York: Routledge.

Olaf Thygesen Damm (1977). “Lidt af legetøjets historie” i Klodshans, årg. 5, nr. 5: 3-6.

John Baichtal og Joe Meno (2011). The Cult of LEGO, San Francisco: No Starch Press.

(An earlier version of this blog post has been published in Danish on on 23 Februar 2012.)