What makes a person – their genes, or the road they walk in life? Do our parents shape our futures, or are the events that buffeted us along the way more significant? Are we masters of our own destinies, or mere puppets for the bundle of genetic material we were born with?
And what would it be like to be an evil Wookie musician?
All these questions and more are answered by the Star Wars: Identities exhibition at London’s O2, a collection of movie memorabilia organised around the idea of how life experiences shape our personal, well, identities.
As videos, exhibits and voiceover explain different ideas of how you’re shaped by our environments and choices (including our parents, home, career and relationships), you’re invited to make those choices yourself at various stations throughout the exhibition that you activate with a handy wristband. Very sci-fi.
Now, if you’re thinking this sounds like an odd mixture – Darth Vader costumes and clinical psychology aren’t a traditional mix, except at certain exclusive parties – there’s a reason it isn’t just a straight props exhibit, as Sophie Desbiens, Communications and Museum Relations Director for X3Productions explained to me in the shadow of several nearby Sith Lords (or at least, their robes on some dummies).
“When we first started the project it was a bid,” she told me under the watchful gaze of Emperor Palpatine. “Lucasfilm were asking for bids to create a new exhibit and it needed to be educational.
“The obvious route has been done before – space, travel, blah blah blah. And so when we were brainstorming about it we were thinking, the thing that we always came back to were the characters themselves.
“Because, you know, when you’re starting to think about Star Wars, and you’re like Oh my God it’s been around so long, it’s still touching people from generation to generation. Why is that?
“Yes, the special effects were amazing when it came out – Lucas was a trailblazer. And it’s important also in movie history.
“But the main thing is the story that it’s telling, and the characters. We relate to them, on a level that makes us feel like they’re close to us, and we know them. And so we wanted to explore that.”
Star Wars concept art showing alternate versions of Jar Jar Binks, Yoda and Han Solo with Chewbacca in the Star Wars: Identities exhibition
Accordingly, Sophie and her team joined up with the Montreal Science Centre, combining generally accepted theories of identity and psychology with appropriate Star Wars characters to create an exhibition that will appeal to both the armchair psychologist and Star Wars superfan. At least in theory.
In practice, the effect is… interesting. Given the fact that it’s essentially a mash-up exhibition, you might assume the Star Wars costumes and props are second-tier, but that’s not the case. From Dave Prowse’s genuine Return of the Jedi Darth Vader costume to ream after ream of fascinating concept art (at one point Yoda was a garden gnome, apparently), everything is the real deal.
Frankly, the exhibits are so good it feels like they could just stand by themselves, and the split focus almost wastes them. An exhibition about psychology through the medium of Star Wars probably doesn’t need amazing props, while an amazing prop exhibition probably doesn’t need the psychological filler.
With that said, the interactive side is certainly entertaining, and adds an element of fun to appeal to any younger kids or non-Star Wars fans in attendance. You get to choose your species, job and even if you’ll turn to the Dark Side, and while it isn’t quite the construction of a new identity through realistic shaping forces that you’re promised (I feel like choosing your home planet isn’t an option offered to most people), I have to confess a certain fondness for my evil Wookie Jedi/podracer Huwbacca (pictured below).
A portrait of the artist as a young Wookie
He had a long and storied (and thematically inconsistent) life.
In short, then, perhaps this mishmash of ideas is the perfect compromise – iconic models, concept art and costumes for the Star Wars fans, some interactive “become an alien” stuff for kids and some broad-brush psychology teaching for everyone.
Personally, I’d spend time looking around an exhibition of the incredible featured concept art alone (which included some horrific alternate versions of Jar Jar Binks), but I’m sure certain family members I’d go with might appreciate a viewing option that wasn’t entirely deep-dive Star Wars nerdery. In turn, I wouldn’t be that bothered learning what bad parents Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen were to Luke (they get a real pasting from one video, which must burn them up) when I could be comparing the size of stormtrooper codpieces instead.
Something for everyone, then – even if you’re a criminal Wookie, a diplomatic Gungan or just a Jedi with daddy issues.
Star Wars identities takes place at the O2 in London until 3rd September, and you can buy tickets here