This Museum Belongs in a Museum

I was in Seattle this past weekend--not for any reason in particular, just a little weekend trip. Megan and I visited the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, which until we drove past it, I did not know existed.

We had to go, even though it looked a bit touristy--it is actually part of the Experience Music Project, which is sort of like the Basketball Hall of Fame for music--if you have never had the pseudo-pleasure, it is sort of an Epcot Center. Lots of video-mentaries in enclosed monitors, a bit of memorabilia, and some high-tech diversions like virtual reality basketball, and such things. So, the ticket was $15 a piece for admission to both the SFM and the EMP. Pretty expensive, yes, but I had to see what a SF Museum was like.

The answer: not so bad, actually. There are good points, bad points, and missing points that could eventually become good points.

First, the bad:

It is heavily movie (read: Star Trek/Wars) weighted, in an obvious attempt to get people in the door. The lightsaber duel theme from Episode One played on a loop outside the building. Most of the memorabilia and artwork in exhibits come from SF movies, or from the movie adaptations of SF books. But, a museum is a largely visual experience, so what do you expect?

It is also small. There are two floors, with a winding trail through each. The overall size equals about one wing in a "real" museum, like the Museum of Natural History or the MOMA.

But, the good:

Among the artifacts that were not bought in studio lot/prop warehouse actions, are some actual things of historical value. Almost every exhibit that features a particular book or author contains a good-condition, first edition copy of the work in question. See the photo to the right, which I snapped before I was informed there were no photographs allowed (sorry, there was no sign, and I was taking pictures of artifacts, not works, with no flash). Behold! The entire 17,000 page manuscript of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle! I have to be honest; I got a bit choked up while standing there in front of it. Not out of any sort of fanboy awe. (I also have to admit that the trilogy is still on my exponentially expanding "to read" list.) I felt a sense of overwhelming admiration for the amount of work that had to go into such an expansive, creative project, and the sheer magnitude of what 17,000 written pages looks like. I can't judge the literary content standing on the other side of the glass, but still, the amount of effort that went into creating these pages is obvious. I know how I feel about my own petty manuscript notebooks, and how I would feel if anyone of them ever escaped my grasp. So, to think that Neal Stephenson lent this massive, handwritten accomplishment out of his grasp is the essence of creativity indeed. Oh, and if you were curious, the little larvae looking things splayed out like armament for a stealth bomber are all the ink cartridges that he used writing the pages.

These are the things that the museum gets right. The annals of SF that are not still possessed by their creators, I would imagine, are largely in the hands of private estates or collectors, and in the words of Dr. Jones, "belong in a museum" for the sake of preservation and public display, if nothing else. This manuscript is a rare artifact of the writting process, and not to automatically conclude that Mr. Stephenson will or will not join the same canon as Shakespeare, Homer, and Isaac Asimov (chuckle), but these are things that could all too easily become lost, come the all-too-near apocalypse. I, for one, pledge to trek via zombie-sled to Seattle, to form a militia to guard these treasures of humanity.

Anyway, back to the museum. Also on the plus side is the layout. Rather than show the stuff in plot lines (the Star Wars section, the Lost in Space section, etc.) they arranged the museum thematically. You are presented, at each exhibit, with a currated view of a particular aspect of SF. For example, "dystopic stories", or "travel to mars", or "confronting social issues". It made for a much more informative and holistic experience than simply seeing A REAL STAR WARS BLASTER RIFLE!!!!!! Highlights of this aspect include the section on the evolution of fictional spacecraft design, and the behavior and motivation of aliens. This museum is laying the groundwork for college majors in Speculative Fiction Theory, so nerdy teenage males, listen close.

But there is certainly room for growth. There was alot of interesting entertainment-tech, like a hands-on computer that would present various famous spaceships through a widescreen, spacestation-esque view screen. Certainly alot more worthwhile than many other museums' hands-on offerings, but it could be better. SF has, beyond doubt, changed the way that our technology has grown in development and use by predicting and speculating on humans' relationships with their cutting edge tools. Why not do the same in the museum? I'm not suggesting lazer-tag, but maybe a little internet? WiFi units to interact with exhibits, like the audio tours in art museums, perhaps? Other Web 2.0 user particpation could not only enhance the visiting experience, but also build support for this new-concept museum. At the Hall of Fame display, one can email oneself web links for further reading about the inductees. This is a good step, but as fast as the web is expanding, the SF museum has a lot of catching up to do. Just look at the inadequancies of their web site!

One last thing that I would think critical to a study of SF is not only the holistic view point across the "genre", but also a view of it in place within the rest of culture. What does it mean that SF largely consists of marketable media such as toys, books, movies, and other associated paraphenalia? How does being a commodity shape the speculative aspects of SF "vision of the future"? And what is the relationship between speculative fiction and fiction in general? Do we expect different things from them?

Truth told, I had a great time at the museum, though it was only about an hour and a half. It's a great museum, though expensive because it is a for-profit venture rather than a subsidized entity. I suggest you check it out if you are in Seattle with an extra hour, and an extra $15. Frankly, I would love to be a currator for the museum. I can put that on my list of possible careers right between "Pocket Battleship Captain" and "Columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picaynue".

Hooray SF!


Anonymous said...

When I'm surfing the web aimlessly and I'm in a certain frame of mind, Adam, your writing kind of blows my mind with its erudition. Don't always agree with you but you are a real thinking person, and for the internet that's something. Say hi to your girl for me. -Tom in NYC

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