Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination – Sydney, Australia 2009

“Now this, is Pod Racing”

Where Science Meets Imagination was an exhibit created by the Museum of Science in Boston in collaboration with Lucas Arts with the support from the National Science Foundation, showcasing a range of props and vehicles from the franchise at that time but focusing primarily on the science and technology behind George Lucas revered science fiction series. The exhibit premiered in Boston in 2005 with an appearance from creator George Lucas and series star Anthony Daniels before commencing an international tour in both the United States and Australia, concluding with its final appearance in the spring of 2014 at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. Unlike its futuristic peer and contemporary set in the distant future which held its own exhibit in London’s Hyde Park in 2003, Star Wars had always been perceived to be the more fantastical of the series, celebrating a more liberal use of science and technology in its narrative and storytelling. This new exhibit was created to allow its fans and audience a glimpse of the technology and science within the Star Wars universe and how societal progression was making a number of its depicted ideas into real world applications.

The exhibition was primarily hosted across the United States between 2005 and 2014 with its only overseas destination arriving in Sydney, Australia in 2008 before moving to Melbourne and returning to America at the end of 2009. The event was held in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences which includes the Sydney observatory close to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge and the Discovery Centre, an institute in this city that celebrates the sciences and impact it has had on Australian culture. Through happenstance I had the good fortune to attend this exhibit on my travels to Australia in January of that year, my aversion to the blisteringly hot climate persuading me to seek shelter within the cool, shaded confines of the museum and enjoy an exhibit on whose basis I have always enjoyed and displayed a cordial respect towards even though my fealty will always reside with Star Trek. Attending 3 years after the release of the supposed ‘last’ in the series of movies concluding the prequel trilogy, it was an opportunity to look fondly at this series of movies and attempt to contextualize them with a scientific and technological methodology similar to my other great joy.

The exhibit featured a mixture of models and outfits from the two trilogies, a testament to preservation for prosperity of these items and features that were stored beyond their production run and were afforded the opportunity to be displayed long after their original use. In contrast to Star Trek which long suffered from its props and items being disbanded and sold over the years with very few original models being retained let alone displayed on a scale such as this, the only original model of the Enterprise I’ve seen the original series production unit on display at the Smithsonian in Washington. Star Wars has long seemed to recognize the subjective personal value and joy of the items in its collection, I observed at the Star Trek exhibit in London and the sentiment was true here, there is a deeper resonance and connection you feel in seeing these props and costumes in person. The tangible reality of Luke’s speeder or C3PO’s golden metallic costume is ever present when you are inches away staring at them fondly in their illuminated cabinets. Of course these items have aged and will continue to age and deteriorate over time however when preserved and maintained they are a joy to see in person.

Without question I do have a fondness for model work and in a broader sense, practical effects in production. I’ll readily accept it’s a mindset of an era broadly consigned to history with the advancement of digital effects however, personally, I do prefer the craft of practical effects that add a sense of authenticity to the production. For an exhibit curated ostensibly around science and technology, being able to view the Star Destroyer models was a real treat, you appreciate the attention to detail in crafting these assets considering the use of close up photography. The pod racer unit on show was equally as fascinating to view as, despite the derision The Phantom Menace receives the sequence with the various racers did well to showcase the lived in nature of the Star Wars universe with the vehicles assembled and built from scraps and remains. Measured on the basis of this exhibit alone, it was an interesting mixture of vehicles across the history of the franchise from the small scaled production models to the larger units such as the speeder. There was a large focus on the droids which featured predominantly in the prequel trilogy, a suitable inclusion given the technological focus and contemporary progression into robotics.

Arguably the inclusion of the various costumes and outfits from the series was a nice inclusion for fans of the series but did little to fit the remit of a focus of the technology and sciences. I’d question the scientific practicalities of the brown and white robes of the Jedi, that said it was enjoyable to see them in person. As mentioned, the main focus in keeping with the theme of the exhibit was the extensive collection of the various droids as depicted in the entirety of the franchise, from the earliest spherical medical probes aboard the first Death Star to the intricate androids in the prequel trilogy, it was a really extensive collection of the robotic characters featuring prominently the series most famous pair of droids in R2D2 and C3PO. Given the event was held long before the acquisition by Disney and the most recent trilogy of films, there was no inclusion of BB-8 for obvious reasons, but the droids on show were an impressive collection of the more humanoid designed creations and the service droids from the series. For the most part the exhibit was quite dark in the area it was held visually, photography was a challenge at times with the light reflection off the glass however the storm trooper outfit featured was rendered fantastically against the black background.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibit was the inclusion of real world technologies influenced or inspired by the vehicles and robotics in the series, presented mainly through video clips such as maglev trains in use through the world. Or the development of hover based vehicles similar to the original speeder from A New Hope which featured at the exhibit and prototype real world applications such as the Moller Skycar. I really enjoy these types of exhibits, especially when it ties into a pop culture subject matter such as Star Wars or Trek and shows the influence and direction of our technological progress. There are numerous accounts of engineers being influenced into joining NASA in its formative years with the impact of Star Trek, equally the adoption and presentation of hover cars and speeders and levitation technology in general can be traced to their depiction on screen in the original Star Wars films. Subjectively, in recent ‘futuristic’ media matter, I would struggle to think of any release that has had a great an impact on society and societal thinking as these pioneering films and television of that period.

Reflecting back on this exhibit, it was purely an opportunistic chance to indulge in a subject matter I enjoy. There was no intention or forewarning on my part, just a wonderful coincidence I happened to be walking by the Powerhouse Museum on that day in January 2009 in Sydney and found myself drawn inside by the poster of the Jedi on the outside. In recent years and months I have been fortunate to attend events in a similar vein such as the AI exhibit in London’s Barbican centre which looked to break down and present a technological concept and chart it from conception to application going forward. Here, a similar premise for the exhibit in its formation, taking the technology of Star Wars and showing the cultural impact from vehicle design to the use of robotics in our day to day lives. I still probably attest, as a series Star Wars leans towards the fantastical in contrast to its most well known peer although as a conceit, that has largely embraced in recent years a similar methodology of abandoning science in pursuit of visual spectacle.

That it was largely contained to the United States with only this brief excursion to Australia in 2008 was a shame, given the recent expansion of the franchise with the acquisition by Disney to date in recent years there have been few of these dedicated exhibitions to these revered franchises though given the dedication of the fanbase, there seemingly is a willing audience willing to travel and attend. My most recent foray into the geek culture outside my own genres at the Pokemon store and the immense queues and demand suggest we have progressed to a point we can be open with our interests. There is of course the financial factor involved, staging an event such as this does come at cost and in a risk averse culture you do perhaps want certain guarantees it will succeed. There is perhaps room for some optimism, the Video Game exhibit in London’s V&A museum in 2018 and the AI exhibit in 2019 both working to showcase fictional and real world technologies and interest to a broader audience. Star Wars as a brand has had a mixed reception with the release of the recent trilogy of films, an event of this type and nature would work today I feel to show why as a series it’s still relevant and worthwhile for an audience to invest their passion and drive in.

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