On July 15, in the midst of the summer tourist season, Chicago's Field Museum opened one of the most popular exhibits in its 100-year history. On display were almost 250 props from the Star Wars movies, including Darth Vader's mask, Princess Leia's gown, and an Ewok costume--all part of a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth."
But what's an exhibit on Star Wars doing in a natural history museum--or in any museum, for that matter? "It's a stretch for us," admits Field Museum spokesperson Pat Kremer. "But it's a way to bring new people in the door, who'll look at other things while they're here." That's powerful logic in an age of tight museum budgets, and if the goal is to bring in new visitors, "The Magic of Myth" has been a success. The exhibit attracted more than one million visitors while at the National Air and Space Museum
in 1997, setting a Smithsonian record. It has sold out every day at the Field Museum, often by noon, and more than 100,000 people visited during its first five weeks. After Chicago the exhibit will move on to art museums in Houston, Toledo, and Brooklyn.
If the idea of displaying early conceptual drawings of Darth Vader in museums seems a little frivolous, it's serious business to some. Consider the exhibit's sponsorship. The items on display are on loan from Lucasfilm Ltd., the producer of the Star Wars movies; the exhibit is funded by Bantam Books, the paperback publisher of the Star Wars novels. In fact, the exhibit works more like a movie promotion than a genuine educational tool. "The Magic of Myth" opened shortly after the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in 1997, and is scheduled to end in the summer of 2002--just as the fifth Star Wars movie hits the big screen. Even the country's museums, it seems, have a role to play in the vast empire of Hollywood hype.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Commercialism has been making steady advances in museums for years. Just look at "An Adventure with Wallace & Gromit," a 1998 exhibit about the popular "claymation" characters at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, or "The Art of the Motorcycle,"
which appeared at New York's Guggenheim.
"The Magic of Myth" isn't the only sign of creeping commercialism at the Smithsonian. The National Museum of Natural History, for example, houses the O. Orkin Insect Zoo--named for the founder of the exterminator company, which sponsored the display. Past exhibits on science in American life and on the Alaskan oil industry, critics charge, have mirrored the viewpoint of their corporate sponsors. And the brochures handed out at the National Museum of American History are emblazoned with the History Channel logo.
It's hard to know where this will lead. But one thing's for sure: If the quality of the nation's museum exhibits gradually falls to the level of the average Hollywood film, then we'll really be in trouble.