Star Wars Identities

star-wars-identities-stormtrooper-posterLast month I visited the Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise exhibition in Hoorn, NL. It was a small, intimate affair that took a loving look at the way Star Wars has affected merchandising and fan practices. A few weeks ago, I took a trip into London for the travelling Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 Centre. Despite sharing a broad subject, the two could not have been more different. Identities features a number of original props, costumes, and concept art from the pre-Disney era. In practice this meant I got to see stuff from the original trilogy (1977-1983), the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), and the Clone Wars animated series (2008-2015). The Force Awakens‘ BB-8 also made an appearance.

The exhibition was, perhaps logically, much larger than the one in Hoorn. It also had quite a few more visitors. Tickets had to be booked for specific time slots, and once we arrived we were admitted in groups of 10 to 15. Although you sometimes had to wait a few moments for a path to the next costume or prop to clear, there was plenty of space and time for all of us to enjoy the exhibits—and to take lots of photographs, which almost everyone did.

Exhibits were often grouped by theme: droids, podracers, Jedi, ships. Major characters whose development was especially extensive or technical, like Yoda or Jabba the Hutt, had their own sections. I had no idea that it took so many concepts to arrive at the Yoda we know today. I’m half-relieved that Garden Gnome Yoda didn’t make the final cut, but would also love to see someone edit him into a fan version of Star Wars.

I’m not necessarily a believer in the sacredness of ‘original’ objects, and I won’t say I was paralysed with awe by Luke Skywalker’s jumpsuit, or the mural that hung behind Palpatine’s chair in Revenge of the Sith, but it was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many objects that made up such a big part of my childhood. I’ve seen Ralph McQuarrie’s art so many times in books that it was somewhat surreal to see the pieces hanging up at an exhibition. Sort of like unexpectedly stumbling across a portrait of a distant relative at the National Portrait Gallery. There were many other great pieces of concept art as well.

The staging and lighting of the exhibits was very well done overall. I won’t lie that Darth Vader’s (or should I say, David Prowse’s?) suit, displayed in all its black glory against neon lights, gave me a little thrill. I was also excited to see the model Slave I and suit of armour belonging to its owner. As a girl I was most interested in the Jedi, but as an adult Boba Fett is my hero. The model Star Destroyer from A New Hope and the AT-AT and Snowspeeder used in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back were also personal favourites.

In addition to being visually stunning, there were a few neat technical aspects to Star Wars Identities as well. Each visitor was given a headset, which would activate when we faced certain exhibits. This let us focus on a particular video or audio clip without any distractions from other corners of the space. It also made me feel a bit like the exhibit was coming to life as I approached.

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These were our characters.

The highlight of the exhibition from an interactive standpoint, though, was definitely the ‘identities’ component. In addition to their headset, each visit received a bracelet at the start of their tour. When touched to various sensors throughout the exhibition, this bracelet would allow visitors to create their own Star Wars characters through a series of choices. After choosing things like race, appearance, and name, the exhibition takes you through your own Star Wars story—from birth, to crisis, to the ultimate choice between good and evil. At the end of the exhibition you can view the character you created, and e-mail yourself a copy of your character’s story as a memento of your visit.

The exhibition also asked visitors to think about the process of narrative and identity in general. What makes people who they are? What makes a person good or evil? What forces shape the characters of Star Wars, and what forces shape us? While at times this narrative felt a little contrived, it gave visitors of all ages something fun to do while waiting to get a peek at another exhibit.

This is not the exhibition’s first stop, nor will it be the last. Star Wars Identities is at the O2 Centre until 3 September 2017, after which it will set up shop in a new city. If you’re a Star Wars fan near London with £25 to spend (£18 at the concession rate), it’s definitely worth a visit. All in all I spent about two hours looking, reading, and listening.

Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!

 

David Bowie Is (…at the Groninger Museum)

CJPaBj4WsAAfZHiThis week I took advantage of my stay in the frozen north of Holland to visit an unlikely location: the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Groninger Museum, running from 11 December 2015 to 13 March 2016.

A friend recommended David Bowie Is back in December. As a casual fans of his influence in pop culture, my husband and I had already been planning a trip for a few weeks before news of Bowie’s death hit the internet, but the evening after we heard the news, we finally decided to book tickets. A whole lot of other people had exactly the same impulse, naturally, causing ticket sales to increase eightfold. There were ±2600 people in front of me in the online queue, and though the website held out despite the increased traffic, it took almost two hours for my turn to arrive.

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My husband described the experience of eating David Bowie’s head as vaguely sacrilegious. The Bowie Museum Cake really made me wonder what the Bowie Burger looked like.

Eventually we had our tickets, the day (and pre-scheduled time) of our visit rolled around, and we boarded a train to Groningen. While we waited for our entry time to arrive so we could pick up our audio guide and headset, we had some tea and a bite to eat in the museum’s adjacent café, which was serving some Bowie-themed treats. This also gave me a moment to reflect on what might be coming up in the exhibition. Would I, as a casual fan, be lost in the wash of information and references? What would be it like to posthumously view an exhibit designed and opened before the artist’s death?

Whatever I had been expecting, the David Bowie Is exhibit was something of a surreal experience. Between the tasteful mood lighting, the psychedelic soundtrack being played over my headset, and the crowds of teary-eyed, head-bopping baby boomers pressed in around the video exhibits and singing along audibly to Bowie’s greatest hits, the atmosphere was more like that of a temple than a museum. This was a monument to David Bowie, and these people were on a pilgrimage. As someone who mainly knows Bowie’s music from the Guitar Hero franchise, I felt a bit like a stranger at a family funeral.

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Were I not visiting after Bowie’s death, I imagine my experience would have been quite different. The Groninger Museum is a pretty psychedelic piece of architecture, and an homage to David Bowie fit in perfectly there.

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The Groninger Museum help desk.

The exhibition was interesting in its own right, featuring a staggering variety of material, from childhood drawings, to promotional material, costumes, and handwritten song lyrics. Also, my personal favourite, the staff and crystal ball of Jareth the Goblin King, from the film Labyrinth (1986). As Catherine Johnson (one of the V&A co-curators) points out, ‘None of this would have happened had [Bowie] not been such a hoarder’. The exhibition draws heavily on Bowie’s own personal collection. There was something for everyone, from hardcore fan to new initiate, and the headset, synchronised to the exhibits, provided audio clips and ambient sound appropriate to the period of Bowie’s life you happened to be walking through.

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You can watch a trailer for the exhibition here, which gives you a partial feel for the atmosphere. In the end, I was most impressed by the sheer range of the projects and corners of the art world in which Bowie was involved. Was David Bowie just good at everything, as this Dutch review of the exhibition asks? Apparently yes.

IMG_4462The David Bowie Is exhibition is overwhelmingly positive about Bowie’s life, his art, and his contribution to popular culture. While it’s completely understandable that a museum honouring a (at the time) living man would gloss over some of the darker periods in Bowie’s career as potholes on the road to success, as a retrospective on his life it felt especially funereal. One does not speak ill of the dead. The strange sense of awe and spirituality that permeated the museum was emphasised by the use of the present tense throughout the exhibit. This was also intentional on the part of the curators. As co-curator Victoria Broackes explains, ‘it puts Bowie firmly into the present tense. It’s a statement; it’s also an unfinished sentence and underpins the approach of the exhibition. Everybody has his own Bowie story’. The exhibit’s phrasing takes on new meaning after Bowie’s passing, as his cultural legacy lives on without him. His Wikipedia page may now be written in the past tense, but at the Groninger Museum ‘David Bowie is all around us’.

I was particularly struck by the mundane things. Standing across from Bowie’s impressive range of costumes, for example, it’s hard not to notice that for all the charisma and the legend, he was such a short, slight man.

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For me, one of the most impressive moments of the exhibition was actually only indirectly related to the collection on display. At the very end, in a corner of a large open space, where video of Bowie performing live is projected on every surface, and various costumes are alternately hidden and revealed by the lights, was a small screen. On it was displayed a rotating series of diverse, seemingly unrelated images. Some of these images were familiar, some of them not, but after everything you see, read, and hear in the David Bowie Is exhibition, they immediately demonstrate the lasting effect that Bowie has had on music, fashion, art, and popular culture in general. For all the exhibition’s memorabilia, special effects, and use of the present tense, that was what really made the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie real to me.

Rock on, Starman.

Image © Gerhard Taatgen
Image © Gerhard Taatgen