Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want

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Movie lobby card once donated to MoPOP by a fan, Frank Catalano.

Those science-fiction film lobby cards you rescued from the back of a movie theater about to shutter? That dusty prop a relative who used to work in television production gave you, years ago? That classic home demo recording equipment you got from the friend-of-a-friend of a now-popular band?

You may have, in our pop culture obsessed world, a potential museum piece.

Jimi Hendrix’s diary in MoPOP’s Wild Blue Angel exhibit. (GeekWire Photos / Frank Catalano)

“Part of what’s nice about all the collecting that happens in fandom is I can feel fairly confident that anything important will be saved by someone, even if it’s not us,” said Brooks Peck, curator at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP).  “With luck we can track it down. Because people really do see the value of saving these things.”

MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms sat down with GeekWire for our new podcast series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts. It turns out that sourcing items for MoPOP’s collections and displays of music or science fiction & fantasy objects can be a challenge.

It’s not like one art museum simply calling up another to borrow a Monet. “With pop culture artifacts, it’s different from art collectors. Because art has a tendency to be high-value commodity, and you know museums have art, and you sort of know the lenders around the world who have the art,” Simms explained. “But with with pop culture things it could be anybody.”

Fortunately, pop culture fans tend to know each other. And they tend to focus.

For example, for the current Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds exhibition, “I was looking for a few Ferengi related items,” Peck explained. “And I’m asking around the main Star Trek people I know. No one’s got anything.” Ultimately, one fan collector in this loose network said he should contact “the Ferengi guy … So I talked to him and he’s absolutely going to loan what I need. So there’s this constant leapfrogging of networking and the things that people specialize in,” Peck said.

MoPOP’s Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds exhibition.

How specialized? “I know a guy who only collects fake money from science fiction films. That’s his thing. I know a guy who collects Star Wars-related cereal boxes,” Peck said. “But what I love about these folks is they’re all generally average folks who have this particular passion, and have decided this is their hobby and how they’re going to spend their discretionary income.”

These amateur experts can also help verify if a particular object is legit or is the only one of its kind.

“In the case of something like a cool prop or a costume piece, where it gets tricky is there’s always multiples, almost always,” Peck said. “Even something that you think is unique like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robe.” Peck said in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, there were actually many robes: a heavy wool one for close ups, a silk robe for long action shots, and so on. “Often people will say I’ve got ‘the thing’ and we know, well, there’s three ‘the things.’”

MoPOP’s Brooks Peck and Melinda Simms. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

And just like in fine art, they have to be wary of fakes, “especially something from an older film where no one’s ever seen the thing up close,” Peck said.

Peck and Simms do have their wish lists. For Peck it is something that already exists and has a prominent home — the original filming U.S.S. Enterprise miniature from the original Star Trek television series, now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Simms favors music. “It would probably be the guitar that Dylan played when he went electric. We do have a Dylan acoustic,” Simms noted. “The electric would be pretty special.”

But before you pack up certain items for MoPOP’s consideration, there’s one class of object they can’t use — pulp science-fiction magazines. “We get a lot of offers with those,” Peck said. “Someone writing and saying, ‘My father just passed away and he had this collection and I’m really looking for something nice to do with it.’ And I have to write these letters and say we really appreciate it, but we’re full.”

And can fans expect a payday if they have something of interest? “No, we don’t purchase objects,” Peck explained. “Other museums have acquisition budgets, but we are not actively acquiring. Loans are our modus operandi.”

“That said, and I want to say this absolutely clearly, I would never want to discourage anyone from reaching out to us if they want to loan or donate something because you never know,” Peck said. “Some amazing, amazing things have come over the transom just in these cold emails. I mean amazing things.”

Listen to the entire interview — including discussions on the scope of MoPOP’s collection, the vault, and the worst artifacts — in the GeekWire podcast above. Download the MP3 here.

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