Artifacts From the Future
Star Wars: The Magic of Myth at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
By Morgan Beatty

When a myth is packaged and sold to us, does its detritus belong in a museum? The Brooklyn Museum of Art seems to think so, and has brought the Smithsonian's blockbuster exhibit, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, to its main stage.

The exhibit begins with a quiet and dusty-seeming room filled with plates depicting Washington crossing the Delaware, statues of ancient Chinese gods of war, Greek urns painted with battle scenes. Just beyond the entrance to the next room is a stainless steel version of the most memorable intertitle line of all time: A long time in a galaxy far, far away.

So much for the long time ago of these dullish plates and urns, let's get to the lasers. Beyond the hanging sheets of corrugated metal a large movie screen is showing old Flash Gordon movies, with their archtypical crawl of opening credits receding into the distance. This is about as far back in time as the rest of the exhibit is willing to go. In the previous room there are some informational murals telling us about Luke's movement toward the Hero, but what everyone here seems to want to see are the costumes and the models of the spaceships.

I had expected to be plunged into darknesss, thrown into an interstellar laser battle, whisked off to desert planet Tatooine—something! Unfortunately, there's no music, except for what comes over the optional headphones, along with James Earl Jones' voice divulging minor bits of information: R2-D2's bleeps were synthesized from babies' cooing, sped up and slowed down; the Tie-Fighter's scream is a combination of an elephant's trumpet and an eighteen-wheeler passing on the freeway.

There is one Ewok, and it is two feet tall and it is hidden in the bottom of one glass case and it is cloaked in the shadow of poor lighting. The curators didn't even take the time to scatter leaves on the floor of the case for the poor thing. All of these models and costumes and puppets look dreadfully out of place. And although the museum has made sure to put everything in the order of the films' releases, there are no transitions between the jingoistic routs of Star Wars, the darker, icy tones of The Empire Strikes Back and the chaotic endgames of Return of the Jedi.

If there's any artfulness to Star Wars, anything that merits its splash in a mueseum of art, it lies in the movies' expression of our longing for transport. But we never forget that we are in a museum, so the power that the films achieved by separating you from the everyday has not been tapped. The costumes are imposing, but, ultimately, made of Earthly cloth. No eyes stare back at you from behind Vader's cowl, and although you can hear his menacing wheeze over the PA system, within five minutes the drone begins to sound like a faulty air conditioner.

The ship models aren't too much better than the ones we could buy at the toy stores—and why should they be? This is a model of the model that you saw on the screen, easily mass-produced but made real because they were in your hand. Now they rest behind glass, and they are easily walked past. One begins to wonder whether artifacts of the future will have any originality to them at all. Will the museum exhibit of the future make us anxious not over the passage of time but the lack of the tactile in our cache of souvenirs?

Of course, we are only talking about dried sweat in a Chewbacca outfit—and as the Director of the Brooklyn Museum reminded us before the press opening, this is about "wow." The museum guards will allow us to say "wow" if we want. There is even a section reserved for helmets and masks near the end of the exhibit, though the masks are held at the end of a short rope, and large museum partons might find "interacting" a bit uncomfortable. If movie theater owners had a shred of the showmen left in them, this exhibit would not be necessary. "Pieces" like these would be proudly displayed in the lobby of the Peoria cineplex, for moviegoers to peruse on their way to the popcorn.

At the end of the five sparsely filled rooms a neat ironic reversal comes as we are finally released to the gift shop. If museum gift shops make us uncomfortable with the way they mock the uniqueness of artifacts, reducing them to a plasticity and a cheapness that fits into a shopping bag, then this one reminds us with its profusion of memorbilia that Star Wars is not Art. The copies of this stuff are better than the originals. "Merch" is what the Star Wars movies are all about: disappearing into the magic then rushing to the toy store, buying the action figures and continuing the tale at home, in your bedroom. This was a myth we could touch, own a part of, reduce to our scale and distort according to our own purposes.

And so too are the legends of the past shrunk down for the Lucas Arts Empire to use in the next batch of films. I don't think there's anything wrong with this. But confusing myth with movies in a museum might be a little dangerous. Much money will be made, many people who have never been to the Brooklyn Museum will go, and since their tickets will include general admission, they might venture out of the Star Wars exhibit to see the real artifacts. This line of reasoning is often trotted out not only to apologize for light museum fare, but to ennoble sour exhibits like Sensation, which four years ago graced the Brooklyn Museum of Art with its disrespected dead animals and dildos. I'm not sure that our motives for going to a museum can be so neatly separated from the effect a museum should have on us. Those Grecian urns will have to do battle with the Tie-fighters now: they are juxtaposed, not woven together in some tapestry concerning the continuity of art and mythology. And if the urns can't move—if they don't make blended animal and machine noises—how can they possibly survive our current lust for smashing high and low together?

Hand-wringing about art notwithstanding, exhibits like this cannot ruin the original magic, the feeling that I had when, as a 6 year-old, I first saw Star Wars. No "art" dealer, no reclining curators, not even Lucas Himself, with His questionable prequels, may tarnish the fun. It remains in the long-time-ago forever. Put these empty costumes behind glass, but I'll still remember my Han Solo figure sunk in peanut butter carbonite; my X-Wing Fighter lancing the dark on wings gnawed by my dog; my light saber that broke off at hilt but still burned bright with "the Force that surrounds us and binds us." I just won't listen when they start saying it's good for me.