Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture
There can be magic in an object that represents a beloved memory or moment. But, as with any pursuit of love, sometimes there’s a misunderstanding.
Take an exhibition about Avatar at what’s now the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle. Curator Brooks Peck recalled negotiating with the studio to get costumes and props to display. “The people from Fox came back to us and said, ‘What if we just make reproductions of all these things and you display them instead?’” Peck remembered. “We had to explain to them … if it’s not the sweaty pit-stained T-shirt that Sigourney Weaver actually wore, it’s just not real.”
Welcome to the behind-the-scenes world at MoPOP, and the people responsible for selecting, saving, and displaying what’s worthwhile from our everyday obsessions. Not to mention meeting the challenge of making the magic feel as real again as it was when we first experienced that popular culture crush.
Peck and MoPOP Collections Manager Melinda Simms sat down with GeekWire for this episode of our new podcast series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts to discuss the collection, and everything from finding objects and verifying their legitimacy, to explaining older artifacts to new generations. Peck has been with MoPOP since it was known as the EMP Museum and has curated exhibits including those on Battlestar Galactica, space-themed record covers, and the current Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds. Simms has been with MoPOP for nearly a decade, and has worked with museum collections from Texas to Oregon, including at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
[Listen to the episode below, or download the MP3, and keep reading for more.]
You might sum up the motto of their dual mission as to preserve and protect … as well as present. There’s a lot of stuff — artifacts or objects, depending on your preferred term — involved.
“I am responsible for the daily care and feeding of the collection, and make sure everything is housed appropriately to archival standards,” Simms explained. She estimated MoPOP has close to 100,000 objects cataloged, and “if you expand that out to the pieces in the vault that we are still working on getting cataloged in the collection, probably close to 150.”
The pop culture range visible is staggering both in objects owned or borrowed, from the Cowardly Lion costume in the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz (“Made with actual lion pelts. Sorry to say,” Peck noted) to more modern items. “It’s a very large collection of musical instruments and music memorabilia from the Northwest and globally,” Simms said. “And then we have the secondary collection, which is the sci-fi collection”
When not on display — or on loan to other museums — items in MoPOP’s collection are stored in an off-site vault (prompting a GeekWire visit in 2014). The actual address, while near MoPOP in the Seattle area, is not disclosed for security reasons. However, it does have a moat.
“Our new vault doesn’t have water sensors in the floor,” Simms said, comparing it to a previous location, “but what it does have is a three-foot walkway around the entire perimeter of the vault that would act as the first holding chamber for any water that would come into the basement.”
A broken pipe isn’t the only potential danger facing the objects. Frequently, it’s the object itself, and what it was made of. Costumes and props are generally built to look good in a movie or video production — not to stand the test of time.
The worst offender? “Plastic. Without a doubt,” Simms responded. “The compounds and the chemical compositions of plastic have changed dramatically over the years and there just hasn’t been a significant amount of research that keeps up with the plastic degradation.”
“They just fall apart naturally and there’s nothing we can do to stop them,” Peck added.
Also troublesome are latex, and anything made of foam or foam rubber. “I really wanted to display the pig lizard from Galaxy Quest,” Peck said, a creature that explodes in a transporter test and of which there’s a big foam rubber non-exploded version. But after nearly 20 years, he said, the prop was, “just crumbling crumbling crumbling. We looked at it and there was just no way we could we could display it.”
Ultimately, the objective isn’t only to collect and conserve artifacts, but to put them out in public and tell a story. Sometimes, connections between objects are straightforward — for example, an original tribble in the Star Trek exhibition, or the TWA airline flight satchel in the Hendrix Abroad exhibit. Other times, the telling requires a bit more creativity.
Take the costume of Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes placed near a description of Rod Serling, best known for The Twilight Zone, in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. Peck said it was a matter of answering the question: Who’s behind this?
“Hopefully, maybe your eye will stray a little to the right and you’ll see this text panel talking about Serling,” Peck explained. “Rod Serling wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Planet Of The Apes. Way back when. And that’s how we can make that kind of connection.”
Both Simms and Peck have their favorite objects. Simms’ is the Michael Jackson jacket that he wore at the Motown 25th anniversary celebration where Jackson debuted the moonwalk.
Peck’s currently is Robin Williams’ space suit as Mork from the TV series Mork and Mindy, a show Peck grew up with. “What I love about that is it’s made from parts of Star Trek costumes back in the 60s,” he recalled. “So this costume has this great science fiction provenance and history.”
Proving that even impermanent pop culture objects can build on, and extend, pop culture.
Previously in this series: Game writers to be honored with Nebula Award in first for professional science fiction and fantasy org
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